When Microsoft launched Windows CE 3 years ago, the company promised that we'd see several form factors that would take mobile computing in new directions. Windows CE branched out a bit from its humble Handheld PC beginnings, primarily into a PocketPC design that owes more than a little bit to rival devices based on the Palm OS devices. But Microsoft never capitalized on the design I thought would be the real winner, a tablet-sized PC. I imagined this device being carted around at construction sites, for example, as architects replaced their paper-based blueprints with an infinitely malleable digital alternative.
But at Fall COMDEX this year, Microsoft showed that it had never given up on such a device. Bill Gates often uses his COMDEX keynote to showcase upcoming technologies. And in this year's keynote, he introduced a prototype of Tablet PC, a Whistler-based PC replacement that the company says will ship in 2002. And based on my hands-on experience with this 8.5 x 11" device, I'm excited about the possibilities.
"Now, I mentioned that the PC portables have been . . . getting into new form factors," Gates said. "There's a radical step that can be taken, we believe, when you get to a form factor that's truly tablet sized, and has the ergonomics of a tablet, something that you would take with you into a meeting. We've got some incredible people at Microsoft working on this. It's one of the most amazing projects we've ever done."
During the keynote, Bert Keely, a Microsoft software architect, gave a compelling demo of the Tablet PC. During the post-keynote press reception, I talked to him and checked out the device. Keely noted that Microsoft's OEM partners (PC makers), not Microsoft, will build the Tablet PC. A 500MHz Transmeta chip powers the current prototype—an attractive unit with orange padding—but Keely told me that the design was generic enough to use AMD and Intel chips. "That's up to the PC makers," Keely told me.
"It's optimized for people who spend part of the day away from their desk," Keely noted. "Isn't that just about everybody?" The unit is a bit heftier than it looks, probably about 7 or 8 pounds, but according to Keely the weight will come down. The Tablet PC works like a regular PC when it's docked, and you can interact with it using a USB keyboard and mouse. And the Tablet PC is designed for portability, with 802.11 wireless Internet access and an amazing pen-based UI.
And it's the UI that makes the Tablet PC such a wonder. We've come to expect handwriting conversion capabilities, but the Tablet PC goes much further. In fact, Keely said that Microsoft specifically glossed over the conversion feature to focus on what the Tablet PC does with handwritten notes and drawings instead. You can use it like a paper-based notebook, writing notes and sketching pictures. But the Tablet PC can then handle your handwritten notes as a word processor would: You can move text around, cut or copy text, or do just about anything else you'd do with a word processor. Although its capabilities are hard to describe and amazing to see, this software clearly changes everything.
"Handwritten ink is expressive, it's intuitive to use, and it's very personal," Keely said during the keynote. "There would seem to be some great benefits if we could bring that into the electronic world. Of course, the very first step is to make sure that the ink flows from the pen just as quickly and smoothly as it does on paper. . . . and I think we've really achieved it."
"So here's a sentence that . . . I'd like to be able to shorten," he said, pointing to handwritten text on the Tablet PC. "I want to select some ink and cut it, and I'd like to have the document reflow just like it would in a word processor. Well, we can do that—because the software recognizes the format of the ink as being either words, or drawings, or even mark up, and do the right thing. And if the software recognizes it as words, then it will treat it like a word processor would. In fact, we can format our ink just like we format text. So I can add bold, italics, highlighting, whatever."
The best technology works seamlessly and is instantly familiar, instead of forcing users to learn complicated new skills. And the Tablet PC is the computer we've all dreamed about but never dared to believe we'd see anytime soon. I don't doubt that it will change mobile computing—nay, the entire PC industry—in a profound way. And who knows: After years of neglect at a keyboard, our hands might relearn the ancient art of handwriting and transform the more personal forms of digital communication—even email—into something we can treasure.