Microsoft's long-awaited Tablet PC launch event was a celebration for the company and Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates, who has taken this project under his wing. The event featured the usual Microsoft launch kitsch, with rolling demo tables, plenty of videos, and an interesting collection of celebrities. The launch 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 attendees through a history of the devices that led to the Tablet PC, beginning with the Memex, a theoretical computing device invented in 1945 for looking up information, recording thoughts, and sharing information. "It looks like a Tablet PC," Gates joked of the mechanical monstrosity. Gates had a hand in the next major innovation he discussed, the Tandy Model 100, a portable computer that journalists favored in the early 1980s; the device displayed four lines of 20 text characters and featured 32KB 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 even mentioned the ill-fated Go, an early 1990s company that pioneered a pen-based system that failed after Microsoft decided to drop support for the system and develop its own, suspiciously similar, pen-based system. The Microsoft product--Pen for Windows--sold poorly, Gates said, because the hardware and software of the time wasn't up to the challenge.

After a short dig at Apple Computer's Newton for its infamously bad handwriting recognition, Gates curiously skipped over the first three generations of Windows CE and Pocket PC products and jumped 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.

Microsoft's contribution to tablet-style software can't be minimized. The company has developed digital ink as a native data format 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 people who attend a lot of meetings and take notes, people who want to read without the fatigue normally typically associated with on-screen reading, and people who need to annotate documents. Developers can easily update any application to support digital ink, Gates said. Obvious choices are forms applications, such as those used for insurance claims and patient records. And the Tablet PC will definitely be a huge hit in Asia, where complex alphabets make keyboard input inefficient at best.

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

Microsoft Group Vice President of Productivity and Business Services Jeff Raikes discussed third-party support for the Tablet PC, but his primary role was to serve as a foil for 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, during which the pair showed off a free Office XP add-on that lets core Office XP applications work with digital ink on Tablet PCs.

Raikes also brought out Dr. Stephen R. Covey, author of "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." Covey's company, Franklin Covey, has created TabletPlanner, a Tablet PC-enabled version of its Day Planner software.

Gates re-emerged for the conclusion of the launch event to show off 11 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 technical successes of today's solution, noting that the Tablet PC will only get better in the future. Future tablet devices will feature smaller, 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 address began, I checked out some of the new hardware designs from a variety of Tablet PC makers. Because I reviewed a Tablet PC months ago, I didn't expect anything new at the launch. But many of the Tablet PC designs I saw yesterday were far more innovative than I had expected.

ViewSonic fielded the V1100, a 3-pound slab-style Tablet PC that 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 device with a beautiful, full-sized keyboard that's reminiscent of Microsoft's black Office keyboard. The ViewSonic device features a standby mode that lets you swap out the battery without losing data. The batteries last about 3 hours, according to the company, although you can dramatically improve battery life (as with any laptop) by turning off wireless support and slightly dimming the screen; the company reportedly has seen batteries last as long as 6 hours. ViewSonic also displayed its $299 Pocket PC, the V35, which is the thinnest and lightest Pocket PC on the market; it goes on sale in 2 weeks and looks like a winner.

Hewlett-Packard (HP) showed off its Compaq Tablet PC TC1000, which features a unique three-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 lie flat under the device when not in use or that you can use as a combination base and keyboard. The TC1000 weighs about 3.5 pounds without the keyboard and about 5 pounds with the keyboard. As described, the HP model is impressive, but when you add the optional $299 Docking Station, the unit shines. Designed for use on a desk, the Docking Station lets you mount the tablet and keyboard on an extended arm and provides MultiBay expansion for CD-type drives, removable hard disks, 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 device at the launch and, unlike most of the tablets at the launch, it uses a new 1GHz Crusoe chip from Transmeta.

Toshiba demonstrated the Portege 3500, its convertible laptop-style Tablet PC that features a similar design to the Acer product I reviewed earlier this year except that the Portege lacks the Acer's side-mounted screen latches that provide stability in laptop mode. I asked Toshiba about this seeming weakness, but the company assured me that the single, centrally mounted swivel latch is strong, stable, and secure enough to provide a long life. I'm not so sure, to be honest. The Toshiba weighs 3.5 pounds, features a large 12.1-inch screen (compared to the Acer's 10 inches), costs about $2300, and uses the requisite Intel Pentium III-M processor that most Tablet PC makers seem to have adopted. I appreciated (and agree with) the honesty of Toshiba's advice to configure a Tablet PC--or any laptop--with at least 512MB of RAM.

Acer displayed its time-tested C100 convertible laptop, and many of the tablet-toting launch attendees were, predictably, using this device. Because I've already reviewed the C100, I didn't spend much time talking with Acer, but I consider the C100 the standard that all convertible laptop-style Tablet PC makers should follow. The C100 is a good-quality machine, with prices in the $2200 to $2400 range. However, Acer uses a much slower processor than the competition--800MHz in the C100, compared to 1.33GHz in most other machines--which might be a concern.