In perpetual hype mode since Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates first introduced the technology in late 2000, the Tablet PC is finally ready. The device will be available in two form factors and combines the best features of a modern laptop with an active digitizer, stylus, and pen-enabled software. Is a Tablet PC in your future, or is this technology the next Microsoft Bob? Here's what you need to know about the Tablet PC.

The Hardware
First-generation Tablet PC hardware will be available in two versions: a traditional tablet and a so-called convertible laptop. The tablet devices will include a docking station for connecting to a keyboard and mouse while you're sitting at a desk; you can also carry the device around the office, using a stylus and onscreen keyboard to interact with the device.

Convertible laptops are more compelling than the tablet form factor. Microsoft calls the convertible laptop a "laptop on steroids" because it offers all the functionality of a modern ultra-mobile laptop along with the ability to unhook the screen, swivel it around, and use the device as a tablet, with stylus or onscreen keyboard input. Because you can use the device in either laptop or tablet mode, on the fly, you're never stuck on the road without a keyboard.

The active digitizer is probably the Tablet PC's most important hardware advancement. The active digitizer sits behind the touch screen and tracks the movement of the stylus. The active digitizer can detect a compatible stylus held as far as an inch above the screen, resulting in extremely accurate tracking. However, you can't interact with the device by touching the screen with your finger or other object, as you can with a Pocket PC, because the active digitizer works only with a stylus. Certain styluses have an eraser that functions like a pencil eraser: Flip the stylus over and rub the eraser over the ink marks on the screen; it visibly erases any digital ink marks you want to remove from your document.

The Software
Most of the excitement surrounding the Tablet PC relates to its software capabilities, which ship as part of Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, available only with Tablet PC hardware. XP Tablet PC Edition is a superset of XP Professional Edition: the base XP Pro OS with additional features that make sense only in a tablet scenario. Unlike earlier pen-computing systems, the Tablet PC works natively with the digital ink you create in tablet-enabled documents and doesn't automatically convert the ink to text. This functionality sounds ludicrous, perhaps, but the quality of the Tablet PC's digital ink is amazing. For example, the software supports touch sensitivity, so pushing harder on the stylus results in a thicker stroke.

The primary ink-enabled application that ships with XP Tablet PC Edition is Windows Journal, whose UI resembles an 8.5" * 11" piece of paper and offers a variety of pen types, highlighters, and other capabilities. Writing in Windows Journal quickly becomes as natural as writing on paper; you need to experience the onscreen writing feature to fully appreciate its qualities.

Microsoft also ships a Sticky Notes application and a small game called Microsoft InkBall with each Tablet PC. More useful, however, is a free add-on called the Microsoft Office XP Pack for Tablet PC, which adds ink capabilities to Microsoft Word, Outlook, and PowerPoint so that you can send a handwritten email message, for instance, or annotate a live presentation.

Microsoft will complete XP Tablet PC Edition by the time you read this article. The company says that Tablet PC devices will become available November 7.

For certain niche markets, including medical, legal, educational, and manufacturing, the Tablet PC might be the perfect solution. However, I recommend that other potential customers seriously consider how they might use such a device before buying one. Data interoperability is the problem: If you want to exchange ink documents with non—Tablet PC users, you'll have to export them to a graphics format, which is generally undesirable, or perform handwriting recognition, which often works poorly. However, even in a theoretical world in which everyone has Tablet PCs, ink documents aren't all that useful: After all, why would I want an 11-page memo written in your lousy handwriting?