A year after the debut of Microsoft's innovative Tablet PC platform, the software giant is keeping an upbeat tone despite slow sales. A powerful new hardware platform is in the works that will erase past performance and battery life problems, and a new version of the Tablet PC software--Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2004, code-named Lonestar--will fix some technical problems in the original software. But a growing rift between the hardware makers that create the Tablet PCs and software-maker Microsoft could escalate into the biggest threat to the handwriting-capable systems. This week, PC maker Acer, one of the original Tablet PC makers, reiterated charges that Microsoft isn't doing enough to drive forward the Tablet PC market.
   "\[The Tablet PC market\] is a mess," Jim Wong, president of the Acer IT Products Business Group, said. "We are disappointed in the market. We believe it will happen, but it will happen too late. We keep on challenging Microsoft \[to do more\]." Wong's charges follow similar complaints that Acer President Wang Chen-tang made last month when he said that Acer barely sold 100,000 Tablet PCs last year, far short of its target of 2 million units. And all the hardware makers sold only 256,000 Tablet PCs through June 30, according to market research firm IDC. Wong says Tablet PC sales are hampered by high prices and a lack of applications that take advantage of the unique features of Tablet PCs. To this day, large corporations with specific needs build most Tablet PC applications inhouse.
   Microsoft says it's addressing these problems. Regarding Acer's charge that pricing is too high, many PC makers are now charging just a small premium over non-Tablet PC hardware models; Gateway is offering a Tablet PC model that's just $100 more than an equivalent notebook computer running Windows XP Professional Edition. But Wong says that the Tablet PC OS should cost the same as, and not more than, XP Pro, as it does now.
   As for applications, Microsoft says its constant upgrading of the XP Tablet PC Edition software development kit (SDK) has helped developers more easily and seamlessly add Tablet PC-specific features to existing applications. And the new version of the OS, due in early 2004, makes it much easier for users to input handwriting-based Digital Ink data. In many cases, the company tells me, developers can add new XP Tablet PC Edition 2004 functionality without even recompiling applications--a boon for companies that want to get running on the new system quickly.
   Clearly, the platform's biggest problem is communication. Microsoft needs to do a better job of informing key volume markets such as the educational sector that the Tablet PC is an effective and inexpensive solution that can benefit large numbers of users. Most people who try a Tablet PC immediately understand its benefits, but it's a product you really need to pick up and experiment with before you appreciate it. The Tablet PC isn't a product for everyone--many computer users type far more quickly than they write, and many people's handwriting is illegible. But many people could benefit from the handwriting capabilities in XP Tablet PC Edition. The trick is to let them know such capabilities are available. If successful, the Tablet PC, combined with strong Microsoft Smartphone sales, should destroy the market for traditional PDAs. That scenario isn't taking place yet.