Microsoft's long-awaited Tablet PC launch event was a celebration for the company and its enigmatic Chairman, Bill Gates, who had taken this project under his wing. The event featured the usual Microsoft kitsch, with rolling demo tables, plenty of videos, and an interesting collection of celebrities. It was the biggest product rollout the company has staged since its gala Windows XP Launch last year.

"The launch of the Tablet PC marks an exciting new era of mobile computing that is limited only by the imagination of its users," Gates said. "The Tablet PC is a great example of how computers are adapting to how people really work, whether they're taking notes in a meeting, collaborating wirelessly, or reading on-screen."

Gates walked launch attendees through a history of the devices that led to the Pocket PC, beginning with the Memex, a theoretical computing device invented in 1945 that was designed to look up information, record thoughts, and share them with other people. "It looks like a Tablet PC," Gates joked of the mechanical monstrosity. Gates had a hand in the next major innovation in this space, the Tandy Model 100, a portable favored by journalists in the early 1980's that featured 4 lines of 20 text characters and 32 KB of RAM. "The Tandy's ROM was written by me and one other person," Gates noted. "It was the last Microsoft product on which I did most of the work." Gates actually mentioned the ill-fated Go Corporation, a company from the early 1990's that pioneered a pen-based system that was destroyed when Microsoft decided to drop support and develop its own, suspiciously similar pen-based system. The Microsoft product--Pen for Windows--sold poorly, Gates says, because the hardware and software of the day wasn't up to the challenge.

After a short dig at the Apple Newton for its infamously bad handwriting recognition, which was lampooned in Doonesbury, Gates curiously skipped over the first three generations of Windows CE and Pocket PC products and jumped right to the Tablet PC. "It's a natural idea," Gates noted, made possible by advances in low voltage microprocessors, LCDs, battery life, active digitizers, and, naturally, software advances at Microsoft.

And to be fair, Microsoft's software contribution can't be minimized. The company has developed digital ink as a native data format, one that's far more expressive and natural than is possible with any keyboard, mouse, or other input device. "The digitizer can't feel like a sheet of glass when you're writing on it," Gates said. "And it has to be high-performance. The ink flows rapidly, and when you press down harder, the ink is thicker, bolder."

The market for Tablet PCs is huge, according to Microsoft. Gates sees plenty of uses for the technology, which is perfect for anyone who attends lots of meetings and has to take notes, people that want to read without the fatigue normally associated with on-screen reading, and people that need to annotate documents. Any application can easily be updated to support digital ink, Gates said. Obvious choices are forms applications, such as insurance claim forms and patient records. And the Tablet PCs will definitely be a huge hit in the Far East, where complex alphabets make keyboard input inefficient at best.

After discussing some of the e-book and e-periodical uses of the Tablet PC, Gates brought out his first celebrity guest, author Amy Tan, who said that her and her editor would use tablets to work on her next book. Tan showed off some of the drawings and notes she had made with the Tablet PC and drew a few chuckles when she noted that the illuminated screen made it easier to read in bed, because she wouldn't need to turn on a late and wake her husband.

Microsoft Group Vice President of Productivity and Business Services Jeff Raikes discussed the third party support for the Tablet PC, but his primary role was to serve as foil to the next celebrity guest, actor Rob Lowe, who talked about annotating "The West Wing" scripts on his Tablet PC and discussed a trick he uses to memorize his lines. "I've got the worst handwriting of any human being," he joked. "How did you make this work?" Lowe later hopped back on stage to join Gates in a photo opportunity, which showed off a free Office XP add-on that lets core Office applications work with digital ink.

Raikes also carted out Dr. Stephen R. Covey, author of "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," whose company, Franklin Covey, created a Tablet PC-enabled version of its Day Planner software called TabletPlanner. Looking at a screen purporting to show Raikes' schedule, Covey joked about an entry labeled "blow-dry hair." "While you're busy blow-drying your hair," Covey said, "I'm serving my customers." Raikes drew a blank and then dead-panned, "I'm just going to move on."

Gates re-emerged for the conclusion of the launch event, and showed off eleven Tablet PC designs, all but two of which are shipping this week; the other two will ship by the end of the year. And as is always the case with Microsoft, Gates downplayed the successes of today's solution, noting that the Tablet PC will only get better in the future. Future tablet devices will feature smaller, even thinner form factors, solid state disks, and next-generation LCDs and peripherals. "This is just the beginning," he said, "but it's a great beginning."

Before the keynote, I checked out some of the new hardware designs first-hand. Because I had reviewed a Tablet PC months ago, I didn't expect anything new at the launch. But many of the Tablet PC designs I saw Thursday were far more innovative than I had expected. Here's what I found out.

"The Tablet PC wouldn't have been possible without the support from \[PC makers\]," Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect said during a CEO roundtable at the launch. "That's why this is happening. We did our own prototype \[early on,\] but it was clunky, like hardware designed by a software company. The Acer \[convertible laptop\] design was eye opening for us, because it showed that you could keep the keyboard there all the time. Then HP came along with a convertible design that has a removable keyboard. A number of designs brought key engineering advances, making the devices small and light with great battery life. Many feature buttons so you don’t need to take out pen when you're reading, for example. We all made a big bet on the new face of computing, and we're thrilled to get it out to lots of users. It's the biggest evolution of the PC in many years."

At the launch, Viewsonic fielded a 3 pound slab-style Tablet PC, the V1100, which features nice industrial design, with a beveled back for easy gripping, and a wide border area with cursor and other navigational buttons. Viewsonic also supplies its tablet with a beautiful, full-sized keyboard that's reminiscent of Microsoft's black Office keyboard. The Viewsonic device features a nice standby mode, which lets you swap out the battery without losing data. Battery life is about 3 hours, according to the company, though you can dramatically improve that figure--as with any laptop--by turning off wireless support and slightly dimming the screen; the company has reportedly seen battery life last as long as 6 hours. Viewsonic was also showing off its $299 Pocket PC, the thinnest and lightest Pocket PC out there; it goes on sale in two weeks and looks like a winner.

Hewlett-Packard was showing off its Tablet PC TC1000, a former Compaq design that features a unique 3-way design that sets it apart from the other tablet hardware I saw. HP's device ships as a slab-style tablet in its base $1699 configuration, which comes with a thin keyboard/base unit that can latch flat under the tablet when not in use, or be used as a combination base and keyboard while at a desk or on a road; HP tells me the unit works fine this way in an airplane, for example. Sans keyboard, the TC1000 weighs about 3.5 pounds. Adding the keyboard puts the weight at 5 pounds or so. As described, the HP is impressive, but when you add the optional $299 Docking Station, the unit really shines. Designed for use on a desk, the Docking Station lets you mount the tablet and keyboard on an extended arm, while providing MultiBay expansion for CD-type drives, removable hard drives, and other devices, a network card, a monitor port for dual display functionality, and extra USB ports. HP's tablet was, by far, the most intriguing at the launch, and the one device for which I would pay my own money.

Toshiba demonstrated its convertible laptop-style Tablet PC, the Portégé 3500, which is very similar design to that of the Acer I reviewed earlier this year, except that the Toshiba lacks the Acer's side-mounted screen latches, used in laptop mode for stability. I asked Toshiba about this, but was assured that the single centrally-mounted swivel latch was strong, stable, and secure enough to provide a long usage life. I'm not so sure, to be honest. The Toshiba weighs 3.5 pounds, features a 12.1 inch screen (compared to the Acer's 10 incher), costs about $2300 and uses the requisite Intel Pentium III-M processor that most Tablet PC makers seem to have adopted. One little bit of honesty I did appreciate from Toshiba was the tip that one should configure a Tablet PC--or any laptop--with at least 512 MB of RAM. This has been my recent experience as well.

Acer had its time-tested C100 convertible laptop on display, and many of the tablet-toting people present at the launch were, predictably, using this device. As I had already reviewed the Acer, I didn't spend much time talking with them, but I consider it the standard that all convertible laptop-style tablet makers should follow. It's a good little machine, with prices in the $2200 to $2400 range. However, Acer uses a much slower processor than the competition--800 MHz in the C100, compared to 1.33 GHz in most other machines--which might be an issue.