Believe it or not, Microsoft might be on to something

Microsoft has often come under fire for incorporating others' ideas into its products, destroying entire markets in the process. This stereotype might still be accurate, but the company's plans for the second half of 2002 include several new technologies that offer real innovation and promise for the IT industry—and real benefits to you at work, on the road, and even at home.

Tablet PC
Microsoft's Tablet PC specification will usher in a new generation of laptop devices with convertible screens. You can use the devices as laptops or as flat-panel tablets—a change from the original concept, in which Tablet PCs were simply flat-panel devices sans keyboard—a product that would have found a fairly limited audience. Tablet PCs incorporate an active digitizer, rather than a simple touch screen, that tracks a stylus at as much as 1" from the screen and can switch instantly between landscape and portrait display modes.

Tablet PCs will ship with a new Windows XP version—Windows XP Tablet PC Edition—that will include digital-ink support and a new Journal application for taking handwritten notes. The best part is that you can search and edit handwritten text as native data that you can also paste into any standard Windows application. A free Microsoft Office XP update will add handwriting support to Office applications so that Tablet PC users can write handwritten email messages and annotate Microsoft PowerPoint presentations on the fly. This device is so exciting that it's difficult to imagine today's laptop designs not simply giving way to this new functionality.

Mira Remote-Display Technology
Mira, a consumer-oriented technology that adds remote-display capabilities to Windows PCs, could make it big in business as well. The difference between a Tablet PC and a Mira display is subtle but important. Whereas a Tablet PC is a full-fledged laptop, a Mira device is simply a remote-display device. Mira devices are limited to specific areas and can't perform all the duties of a PC, such as video streaming. Microsoft describes Mira as being the equivalent of a cordless phone—which has a limited range—whereas a Tablet PC is more like a cell phone, ready for travel.

Mira will be the basis of a new generation of primary or secondary displays that you can detach from your PC and carry around. Mira displays will run Windows CE .NET (formerly code-named Talisker) and use Wi-Fi (the 802.11b wireless standard) and Windows Terminal Services technologies to communicate with a server or desktop PC. Microsoft plans to develop future Mira technology that will also drive devices such as TVs and smart picture frames. I see these displays—especially the smaller 8" and 10" versions, which will be relatively cheap and highly portable—eventually finding their way into administrators' hands. Picture Mira devices as a tool for IT workers, giving them instant access to any PC in the office, from any location. Mira devices probably will soon be as ubiquitous in the enterprise as cell phones, pagers, and text-messaging devices are today.

But Wait, There's More
Are you interested in a new remote control­based interface for Windows' digital-media features? Check out Freestyle, which will ship as part of Windows XP Service Pack 1 (SP1). How about new digital audio and video codecs that offer a 20 percent performance and quality improvement over earlier versions, or a new digital-media server that will make life easier for content creators? Corona, the next generation of Microsoft Windows Media Services (WMS), is on the way. What about a Windows server with a built-in Web server that's in locked-down mode by default? Welcome to the Windows .NET Server (Win.NET Server) family.

Of course, these Microsoft products will be available only on Windows, the platform that never gets a lot of credit for being at the forefront of innovation. But if you look hard enough and with an unbiased eye, the innovation isn't hard to see.