Say what you will about the Tablet PC, Microsoft isn't giving up on the concept. The company plans to meld future versions of this often-misunderstood technology with other mobile-computing devices to ultimately produce a mainstream product. Once seen as laptop alternatives, Tablet PCs will soon give way to a range of mobile PCs that meet all customer needs--a sharp departure from the niche products PC makers released until recently.
"The Mobile Platforms Division \[at Microsoft\] was formerly the Tablet PC Division," Darin Fish, business development manager for the Mobile Platforms Division, said. "We reorganized so we could have a greater focus on the mobile PC, not just the Tablet PC. What we found working on the Tablet PC is that much of the platform work we were doing was benefiting all mobile PCs. The challenge was getting \[that technology\] to all mobile PCs. We're still the same group, and we have one team focused on mobile PC fundamentals, and one that's very focused on pen and ink."
Fish laid out Microsoft's mobile PC schedule for the next 3 years. Tablet PCs, he said, have evolved from 2003's premium ultra-portable notebook PCs to more of a feature of traditional notebook PCs, a trend that will continue through 2005. "We're going to see Tablet PC functionality begin to be incorporated as a mobile feature in mainstream notebook PCs," he said. Starting with the Longhorn product wave in 2006, mobile PCs will adapt to meet every customer need and will slowly overtake the desktop PC form factor. PC makers shipped 38 million mobile PCs in 2003 but Microsoft expects that figure to grow to 63 million units by 2006.
As a software company, Microsoft creates the underlying platform that runs Tablet PCs and other mobile PCs, and the company is predictably planning a series of updates that will dramatically improve that platform for users. Late this summer, Microsoft will ship Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 (code-named Lonestar), a free update for all Tablet PC users that adds a dramatically enhanced Text Input Panel with context-sensitive handwriting recognition and other new features.
Microsoft's Longhorn-era plans are far more exciting, however. Although the company hasn't yet determined which of these features it will include in the base Longhorn product line and which will be available only on Tablet PCs and notebook computers, the list is dizzying. Microsoft will beef up fundamental features, such as power management and multimonitor support. The company will also develop a slew of new functionality, including the following:
- Auxiliary displays--Next-generation mobile devices will include small external displays on their covers that will let you view personal information manager (PIM) data at a glance, without having to open or turn on the device.
- Device and file synchronization--You'll be able to use Longhorn's integrated synchronization control panel to synchronize data between your PC and Tablet PC, notebook computer, PDA, portable audio device, and other portable devices.
- Communication and collaboration--Longhorn will make it easy for you to quickly set up ad hoc wireless networks for file sharing and for discovering people who are connected nearby. The OS will also provide a way to connect to wireless projectors by supplying one-to-one and one-to-many support for wireless connections betweem PCs whose users want to collaborate in real time.
- Mobility Center--Microsoft is planning an Activity Center called Mobility Center for Longhorn that will include all the Longhorn mobility-tuning features in a central location.
- Location awareness--Although the details of how the system will work are currently in flux, Microsoft plans to add location awareness to Longhorn PCs; the system will behave and look differently at home, work, school, and other locations.
- Pen/shell integration--Longhorn will natively support ink file names. You'll be able to click on an icon's name with the stylus and write the file name in your own handwriting. A simple wizard will let you supply examples of your handwriting so that the handwriting-recognition engine will compare only created file names against your writing, not the millions of samples the engine currently uses.
- Flick and Snipper utilities--A new pen-gestures feature (code-named Flick) will let you perform certain actions with a Tablet PC stylus that aren't writing or control-selection activities. For example, you'll be able to set up gestures for copy, paste, back, forward, undo, and delete activities. Another pen utility, code-named Snipper, will bring the Snipping Tool for Tablet PC PowerToy into the base OS.
- Pen Optimized Skin--For a new generation of small, 5" to 8" Tablet PC devices that will begin shipping this year, Microsoft is developing a dashboard that will provide access to all user PIM information on one handy page. The Pen Optimized Skin presents time and calendar information, links to recently accessed documents and applications, the seven most recent unread email messages, the most recent uncompleted tasks, and the links to the most often-used applications. This skin is designed to sit on top of--and generally replace--the basic Windows UI on devices with screens that are too small to display a desktop UI.
As it's available, I'll post more information about these exciting developments, plus photos and screen shots, to the SuperSite for Windows. For now, check out my Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) 2004 coverage for a preview of some of these features.