The Light Stuff

With tablet computing, Microsoft hopes to write a new chapter in PC history.
Scott LeibsJanuary 1, 2003

Can the considerable marketing muscle of Microsoft Corp. make of the old something new? “Tablet” PCs have been around for years, as anyone who has ever signed for a UPS package knows. But Microsoft believes that its new operating system — and a strong commitment to the devices from a sizable range of major technology companies — can transform a niche product into a corporate must-have.

Microsoft is being careful to sell its Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, and, by extension, tablet PCs in general, as logical extensions of a knowledge worker’s arsenal. At the November debut, Microsoft shared the stage with dozens of technology partners and corporate customers that were eager to explain why tablet PCs are perfect for meetings, sales calls, field visits, or any other on-the-run experience. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates went so far as to predict that within five years tablet PCs will outsell notebook and even desktop PCs.

The key difference between these new machines and ever-shrinking notebook computers is that tablet PCs, which can weigh less than three pounds, are designed to be useful even when optional keyboards are left behind, thanks to a pen-based interface that captures handwritten notes and provides the point-and-press experience of a PDA. And unlike earlier models, the newest generation is designed to do everything a conventional PC does and then some.

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That’s where Microsoft comes in. Its tablet operating system, which won top honors at the recent Comdex trade show, not only brings standard desktop functionality to tablets, but also adds features, including “digital ink,” a method of capturing and preserving handwritten notes. In emphasizing the system’s ability to store handwriting as its own data type, versus translating it into conventional text as the Apple Newton and other devices have tried (and largely failed) to do, Microsoft is placing a sizable bet that customers will find this approach useful. The company argues that productivity will be enhanced: Instead of bringing a legal pad to a meeting and scrawling notes, you scrawl them on your tablet PC. When you need them again you know where to find them (the system includes a search function), and you can E-mail them as handwritten notes.

Tablet PCs will convert handwriting to text, but Microsoft is talking up the idea of electronic ink as a replacement for paper, reminding people about all the annotating and editing and even doodling that they do, and suggesting that on a tablet PC these activities get the technological underpinning they’ve always needed.

Microsoft doesn’t stop there, though. It has marshaled more than two dozen other software companies, from SAP AG to Franklin Covey Co., to modify their products for tablets. And it has worked closely with customers in many industries to understand just what tablet PCs are good at.

At Bechtel National Inc., a team responsible for contract management used tablets to capture the necessary signatures, merge documents, and E-mail them to appropriate parties, a job that used to require the printing and faxing or scanning of hard-copy documents. Contracts manager David Methot says the pilot test was promising, and thinks the “grab-and-go” capabilities are well suited to an increasingly mobile workforce.

Keyboard Optional

Tablet PCs currently come in two basic varieties: dockable or convertible units that can play a role on the desktop (thanks to built-in keyboards) but then accompany a user whenever he or she leaves the office (hence grab-and-go), and “slates,” which forgo keyboards (although attaching one may be an option) and serve as electronic notepads and Web/E-mail-access devices.

Analysts see a future for tablet PCs as viable replacements for current notebooks: since they can do everything notebooks can and offer additional features, then if the price is right, why not? (Toshiba Corp.’s Portégé line, another Comdex prizewinner, retails for $2,299 to $2,499. Read more about the Portégé and similar models in our Notebook Computers Buyer’s Guide.)

The real questions are, will customers like them well enough to jump before current notebooks reach the end of their life cycles, and, far more important, will grab-and-go models become the de facto desktop machines for mainstream corporate use?

Plenty of ink, electronic and otherwise, will be lavished on speculation and on chronicling Microsoft’s continuing efforts to make this newest version of its Windows operating system the grab-and-go standard.