All the features of a notebook PC—sans keyboard

At COMDEX Fall 2001 in Las Vegas, Ira Snyder, general manager of Microsoft's Tablet Platform Group, and I hovered over the speaker's table, which held our array of notebook computers and PDAs. The notebook PC on which I planned to run a Windows XP demo was running smoothly and my Microsoft PowerPoint slides were appearing properly, but no matter what we tried, Snyder's notebook wouldn't send video to the projector. I offered him the use of my notebook for his presentation, but he waved me off. "It's OK," he said, pointing to the two Tablet PC prototypes he'd brought. "I'll run it from one of these." What Snyder proceeded to do was quite impressive.

Features and Functionality
As the photo on page 83 shows, Tablet PCs resemble oversized PDAs. A touch-screen and stylus are the input instruments. (You can attach an external keyboard for touch-typing, and some devices might offer a built-in keyboard.) Under the hood, the Tablet PC contains the guts of a complete notebook PC. Although Microsoft hasn't yet made final specifications public, the prototype units that Snyder showed me sported 600MHz processors, 128MB of RAM, and 6GB hard disks. The OS is a superset of XP Professional Edition, upgraded to support the touch-screen and stylus. Two major new programs achieve this support: an enhanced version of the Microsoft Transcriber handwriting recognizer that's available in the latest Pocket PCs, and a new application called Microsoft Journal, which lets you use a stylus for note taking.

The key to Journal—and other stylus-centric applications—is its direct support for a new data type called Ink, which tracks the stylus's motion against the touch-screen. Ink is more than just a bitmap image that shows you where the stylus moves. To support Ink, the Tablet PC's touch-screen digitizers must provide at least five times the display's resolution and must sample the stylus position at least 133 times per second. Journal (or any other Ink-enabled application) can store Ink, display it as a bitmap, or turn it over to Transcriber or another application for text recognition.

You can take a Tablet PC to a meeting and use the stylus to take notes in much the same way as you write on a pad of paper. Later, you can select portions of your notes and instruct the Tablet PC to recognize your writing as text but ignore other information, such as a diagram or map. You can add Ink support to other applications—Snyder demonstrated an Ink-enabled version of MSN Messenger that let him include diagrams in instant messages. Tablet PCs also accept voice input: You can record meeting notes and use voice-recognition features to perform commands.

Tablet PC batteries must support Sleep (or Suspend) mode for at least 72 hours, without causing data loss, and resume in less than 2 seconds. The display must let you switch between portrait and landscape modes without requiring a reboot. (I watched Snyder perform such a switch before he launched PowerPoint at COMDEX.) And any docking station that you use with a Tablet PC must support surprise removal.

Tablet PCs take advantage of XP's built-in features, many of which—according to Snyder—are designed to support the new form-factor. The most important of these features is probably Microsoft ClearType font technology, which vastly improves the onscreen display of text on LCDs. If you have XP, you can try out ClearType: Open the Control Panel Display applet, go to the Appearance tab, and click Effects. Ensure that the Use the following method to smooth edges of screen fonts check box is selected, and choose ClearType from the drop-down list. Click OK to exit the Effects dialog box, then click Apply. You'll see a noticeable difference in clarity on a notebook PC's LCD; the effect is less impressive on a CRT display.

Microsoft has an interesting list of partners (including Acer, Compaq, Fujitsu, and Toshiba) that are signed up to manufacture Tablet PCs. Snyder couldn't tell me exactly what the devices will cost—price will depend on the vendors—but he expects the price to be slightly higher than that of a conventional notebook PC with comparable specifications. Expect the first Tablet PCs to ship in the second half of 2002.

A Little History
The Tablet PC isn't Microsoft's first attempt to promote keyboard-free PCs. While preparing to meet with Snyder last fall, I dug through my personal library and discovered a June 1992 issue of Windows Magazine that featured a pen-based PC on its cover. A little-known company called Momenta produced the PC, which ran a modified version of Windows 3.1 (with enhancements for stylus-based input). Some of Momenta's pen-based PC features were strikingly similar to those of the prototype Tablet PCs that Snyder displayed at COMDEX—for example, a detachable external keyboard and even a microphone for voice input.

The specifications of this 10-year-old system look pretty low-end today: The Momenta pen-based PC had a 20MHz processor, 8MB of RAM, and an 80MB hard disk. Those specifications were typical of notebook PCs at the time, but the $3595 price wasn't. The unit cost close to twice as much as comparably equipped notebook PCs of the day.

Momenta wasn't the only company producing pen-based PCs in 1992. Although the concept never took off in the general business market, several companies sold—and continue to sell—the devices for use in specialized applications that require the use of a computer without a keyboard. In fact, when I mentioned these earlier devices to Snyder, he informed me that Microsoft still sold a pen-enhanced version of Windows 98 for pen-based PCs. (Of course, that support will end when Microsoft introduces the XP-based Tablet PC.)

Will the broader market accept the new Tablet PCs, or will the technology be doomed to the same narrow vertical applications that Momenta's successors were? The answer to that question depends on two factors: Microsoft's execution of the Tablet PC feature set and the price. One reason the Momenta failed was that its handwriting recognition was slow and inaccurate, making the stylus little more than a mouse replacement. Who would pay a 100 percent premium for the privilege of using a PC that doesn't work any better (for most purposes) than a less-expensive notebook? Transcriber is a huge advance over the recognizers that were available for the Momenta. But Snyder concedes that Transcriber alone isn't good enough. "If we're seen as another Newton," he told me, "we're sunk." Thus, the Tablet PC's emphasis is on handling raw Ink and letting the user decide what should be recognized as text.

The most important determiner of how the market will react to Tablet PCs is price. If the devices cost only 10 to 20 percent more than a comparable notebook PC, they'll do quite well.

Lots of Advantages
The Tablet PC's form-factor makes sense: When you read documents on an airliner, a keyboard is virtually unnecessary; a touch-screen and stylus will do the trick. The same is true for taking notes during a meeting. Even when you need to write a document, you need to only plug in an external keyboard and prop up the display to enjoy nearly the same functionality as a typical notebook PC. (Some features, such as the ability to use portrait mode while writing, even improve the functionality.)

Another factor that might work to the Tablet PC's advantage is the popularity of wireless networks. You can put an 802.11b card in a notebook PC, but most notebooks make lousy wireless platforms. Notebooks are designed to sit on desks, not to be used on the move. (According to Snyder, a rash of accidents are occurring in buildings that have Microsoft-installed wireless LANs—WLANs—as people walk down hallways holding their notebooks in front of them.) Tablet PCs are a better form-factor for wireless networks.

Finally, to anticipate a question I'm sure some readers will ask, I don't believe the Tablet PC will kill off Pocket PCs and other PDAs. The Tablet PC weighs several pounds and will probably cost $2000. PDAs weigh several ounces and cost about $300. PDAs also turn on instantly and can survive a drop to the floor because they don't contain a hard disk. If you drop a Tablet PC, you'll probably have a repair in your future. For more information about Tablet PCs, see Microsoft's and Compaq's Tablet PC Web sites at http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/tabletpc/default.asp and http://www.compaq.com/newsroom/presspaq/tabletpc/index.html, respectively.