Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates often uses Comdex as a springboard for his company's visionary product plans, such as a new PC design that Microsoft has dubbed the Tablet PC because of its flat form factor. During Gates's recent Comdex keynote, Microsoft software architect Bert Keely demonstrated the device, which he said is "optimized for people that spend a part of their day away from their desk. Isn't that just about everybody?"

The unit is a bit heftier than it looks—about 7 or 8 pounds—but Keely told Windows 2000 Magazine that the weight will decrease by the time the product is released. Even more fascinating than its tabletlike form is the product's software interface, which supports both keyboard and pen-based input. The Tablet PC runs a wireless networking-enabled version of Whistler (i.e., the next version of Windows 2000) and is notable for several reasons, not the least of which is its reliance on a non-Intel microprocessor. Current prototypes run on a 500MHz Transmeta Crusoe chip, which gives up some performance in exchange for extended battery life. (Keely said that future Tablet PC versions will support Intel and AMD processors as well.)

Microsoft hopes that a variety of PC makers will ship Tablet PC devices by 2002. Although Microsoft is showing off some hardware now, the company's OEM partners will determine the final specifications, leaving Microsoft to further develop the device's software. And software is what makes the Tablet PC so compelling. We've come to expect hand-writing-conversion capabilities, but the Tablet PC goes much further: You can use it to write notes and sketch pictures, as you would a real paper-based notebook. The Tablet PC also works like a word processor on handwritten text: You can move, cut, copy, edit, and format your handwritten notes.

"Here's a sentence that I think is just a little bit too long, and I'd like to be able to shorten it," Keely said during the keynote, pointing to handwritten text on the Tablet PC. "I just 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. We can do that because the software is recognizing the format of the ink as being either words, or drawings, or even markup. ... If it recognizes it as words, then it will treat it like a word processor would. In fact, we can format our ink just like we would text. So I can add bold, italics, highlighting, whatever."

According to Gates, "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." He continued, "We've got some incredible people at Microsoft working on this."