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Microsoft's Tablet PC Aims To Reverse An Industry Trend

Comdex: A coming-out party for a new breed of portables.
Bill Gates and the minds at Microsoft want to reinvent personal computing--again. A decade after the first version of Windows that popularized graphical computing, Microsoft's aiming for another user-interface revolution with the Tablet PC, a take-anywhere business machine that recognizes users' handwriting, takes speech dictation, and runs on batteries for nearly a full workday.

Gates will tout the machine in his keynote address at the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas Nov. 11, as Microsoft begins a yearlong marketing push for the product. The Tablet--due next year from such vendors as Compaq, Acer, and Fujitsu--has been shown in prototype form to customers for several months. "The Tablet PC is something that a lot of people have dreamed about for many years--both at Microsoft and other companies," Gates said in an E-mail interview last week. "Sending E-mail or working collaboratively on a document are instantly more productive and exciting experiences when you can take your PC just about anywhere."

If Microsoft can make good on its vision--and there's a PC industry bone yard strewn with attempts to build a high-powered electronic notebook--it could usher in a so-far elusive era of information-sharing in which business users tote slate-shaped computers into meetings to jot down notes, edit documents and drawings by hand, then plug in a keyboard for desktop work. Microsoft's ambitions for pen computing extend beyond the Tablet. Gates says all Microsoft apps--including Office--will be able to read handwritten notes and annotations when Tablets ship during the second half of next year.

Chuck Thacker, an engineer at Microsoft Research and key designer of the Tablet PC--and who's best known for work on the original Xerox Alto system in 1973--says building emerging user interfaces into all Microsoft products could help ensure the Tablet's success. "One thing we understood very early, and have been faithful to as a design principal, is you have to be able to run all your Windows applications with a pen," he says.

Users who have seen one of the 200 or so prototypes say the machine's high-quality pen input and clever software design--which lets users search and edit handwritten notes without translating them into on-screen text--could succeed where attempts by Apple Computer, AT&T, Digital Equipment, and even Microsoft have failed.

"I wouldn't be surprised if in another two years most of our notebooks are gone, and people have Tablet PCs instead," says John Thomas, CIO at Parsons Group, a Pasadena, Calif., engineering and construction company with 10,000 PC users. Thomas envisions field engineers carrying Tablet PCs to jobs sites to view drawings, and on-site managers entering inventory updates on the fly. "I can't imagine, 10 years from now, that people will use keyboards and mice to interface with their computers."

A set of Windows APIs opens Microsoft's "digital ink" software to independent developers, and companies including Autodesk, Corel, and Groove Networks are developing versions of their apps to run on the Tablet. "Microsoft keeps lowering the bar needed to write programs," says Mike Cherry, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, an independent research firm.

But some users feel burned by heavy-handed Microsoft attempts to push upgrades. Thomas says Microsoft "just about lost us as a customer" with new licensing rules that create the need for more frequent upgrades and will force Parsons to pay more up front for its products. "We're willing to continue being their customer, but they need to get out of monopolist mode and start retaining their customer base," he says. It's a balancing act for Microsoft: Develop technology that will delight users, but temper its business tactics so they'll buy the next big thing.

Can the Tablet PC sell? They'll cost at least $2,000 each - a couple hundred dollars more than comparable "ultraportable" notebooks. "A $200 or $300 premium we could do," says Lynn Brenton, director of engineering systems at Lithonia Lighting, a Conyers, Ga. manufacturer. Brenton says field technicians or application engineers could bring Tablet PCs to project sites to call up drawings on a large screen. "It could be a desktop, it could be a tablet, or it could be a laptop," she says. "That's cost-effective."

PC makers shipped about 140,000 ultraportable PCs in the United States during the second quarter, according to Gartner, representing about 6.5% of the total mobile-PC market. "I'm not that excited by the Tablet PC as a concept," says analyst Charles Smulders, "but the technologies that underlie it could be very powerful in a notebook."

Microsoft's customers will have a year to decide for themselves.