Microsoft signs vendors for versatile Tablet PC

Microsoft's Tablet PC concept could soon become a reality with the announcement today that five major vendors and two processor companies have signed on to develop systems.

Calling Microsoft's Tablet PC an "evolution of the portable PC form factor," Microsoft's Chairman and Chief Software Architect, Bill Gates, announced partnerships today with Compaq, Acer, Fujitsu, Sony, and Toshiba. The company will also work with both Intel and Transmeta to develop low-power, battery-friendly processors for the devices, he said. The announcements were made during the opening keynote address at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference.

Though the tablets will vary according to manufacturer, initial models should be thin, probably 1.5 inches or less; weigh 2 to 3 pounds, and have 10-inch displays in a roughly 11.5- by-8.5-inch form factor. Expect wireless connectivity as well.

Each tablet will run the upcoming Microsoft XP operating system, and will be compatible with existing applications, Gates said, calling the device revolutionary.

Gates first introduced Microsoft's Tablet PC concept at last year's Comdex. He said today he expects the first products to start arriving from vendors sometime in 2002.

But Microsoft is hardly the first to conceive of tablet computers. Fujitsu and other vendors have been selling tablet computers for years, but the format was basically confined to vertical markets, such as the UPS delivery service.

That has begun to change recently with products such as the Qbe Vivo from Aqcess Technologies, which supports both Windows Me and Windows 2000. Companies such as Siemens and Sharp are also planning to introduce systems, but these will run on Windows CE.

It's in the Ink

"It (Microsoft's Tablet PC) combines the simplicity of paper and the power of a PC," Microsoft's Charlton Lui said during his keynote demonstration of the tablet. He noted that the tablet PC isn't an Internet appliance, but a full-fledged PC that will come equipped with all the power and storage of a notebook computer.

Making that power work for users means combining a touchscreen interface, a special hardware pen, and new software from Microsoft to make it all work together. That software lets you save your scribbles as is, translate them into actual text, and even edit within a handwritten document.

By using a display that samples many times faster than a standard mouse, Microsoft can make writing on the tablet effortless, like ink flowing from a pen, Lui said.

During a press briefing after the keynote, Compaq's Ken Willett, vice president of marketing, said he expects people top embrace the Tablet PC because "it's just a comfortable way to work."

Phoenix Technologies President and CEO Al Sisto also noted that the handwriting recognition features should make the device popular in countries where language is character-driven, which can make it difficult to use a keyboard.

Living Star Trek

"I've wanted one of these since I saw it in 1966 on Star Trek," said Dick Brass, vice president of Microsoft's emerging technologies. It's taken a while, and there have been some failed attempts along the way -- most notably Apple's Newton -- but now the technology, the software, and the people are ready, he said.

"We aspire to produce a tablet that will be imminently successful," he said. And a big part of that success will be ease of use.

"Nobody had to tell Spock how to use it," Brass said.

And nobody will have to tell analyst Nathan Brookwood of Insight 64 to give one a try, either.

"It's a new way to use a computer that is compelling," he said. And with the right price, it could become even more so, he said.

Microsoft and vendors haven't estimated pricing yet, but Brookwood says if they can bring one of these systems in for $1000 to $1500, people would buy it.

At $3000 it's corporate toy, at under $2000 people will notice, but "under $1000 and it gets very interesting," he said.

As with notebooks, battery life remains an issue, but Brookwood says that mobile technology has made good strides and should offer an aceptable battery life range.

Brookwood acknowledges the past mistakes of vendors trying to make tablet-type PCs, but he thinks Microsoft and its partners may be on the right track this time.

"Could be this time they got it right," he said.

This story, "Microsoft signs vendors for versatile Tablet PC" was originally published by PCWorld.

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