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Commentary by Pen Computing Magazine's editor-in-chief

By Conrad H. Blickenstorfer
Issue 49

State of the Tablet PC: Reason for guarded optimism
As I write this it's been half a year since Microsoft officially unveiled the Tablet PC, or rather Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. So this may be a good time to take inventory of where the Tablet PC stands.

The launch didn't set the world on fire, but it was far from a flop. In fact, it's been relatively quiet but in a good way. There was none of the hype that accompanied earlier pen computing launches. There were no predictions that the pen would soon replace the mouse and that we'd all be writing on tablets instead of typing on keyboards. There was no talk of revolution or a new era of computing. It was all relatively low key.

This peaceful launch was, in part, due to the fact that this time it was Microsoft itself that launched the new platform. That's a big difference to the early 1990s where upstart Go launched its PenPoint operating system as a direct competitor to Windows, and hyped it as its eventual replacement. Microsoft, of course, fought back with Windows for Pen Computing and things got ugly. It was hype versus counter-hype, and Microsoft was dragged into the fight against their will. They had to. They couldn't stand by while PenPoint proclaimed their crown jewel, Windows, a has-been and a dinosaur. As a result, Microsoft's commitment the first time around was artificial. They were forced into it and many at Microsoft probably resented it. Though Bill Gates has always been a believer in the pen and clipboard metaphor, and though he has always been one to push hardware to its very limits with his Windows products and innovations, I am sure Gates knew that the technology for a successful Tablet PC simply wasn't there a dozen years ago.

Likewise, when Windows 95 was launched in the Fall of 1995, Microsoft was sort of forced into throwing the small but vocal pen computing community a bone in the form of Pen Services 2.0, a good but poorly supported product that died a quiet death.

This time was different. The Tablet PC initiative came from Microsoft itself. It germinated over more than two years of showings at trade shows and many high profile mentions by the man himself, Bill Gates. The Tablet PC dominated Comdex keynote presentations for two years in a row before it was even a product. Microsoft was clearly in a position to set the timetable this time around. The company had also cleverly cherry-picked a bunch of key enabling pen technologies over the years. Aha!'s InkWriter, purchased back in the mid-1990s, became the foundation of Journal, the core utility of the XP Tablet PC Edition. When Vadem went under at the end of the 1990s, Microsoft picked up the rights to CalliGrapher handwriting recognition. It, too, re-emerged in the Tablet PC Edition.

Other handy leftovers came from earlier pen computing generations, including the Wacom active digitizer technology which is found in most current Tablet PC hardware. Clearly, this was an instance where "something old, something new" worked very well for a relaunch of what had always been a compelling idea--using pens and electronic ink to communicate with computers. The "new" in the equation, of course, are the much, much more powerful hardware and the rapid emergence of wireless LANs as standard equipment on almost any mobile device. There is a huge difference between a mobile device that is an island while it is not plugged into some dock or wired connection, and one that is always connected.

Finally, Microsoft definitely learned its lesson in the hype department. The emphasis is on ink, on portability, on convenience, on communication, on friendly notetaking during meetings. It is not on handwriting recognition, though that remains an integral part of the Tablet PC, just as Graffiti was always an integral part of the Palm. And while everyone had their opinion as to what sort of marketshare Tablet PCs might grab of the overall notebook market, no one predicted that they would take the world by storm. The approach here was one of creating awareness through demonstrations during keynotes and such, and of making sure big name hardware was available at launch. They never pushed too hard, never created unrealistic expectations. And so far the approach has worked.

To be honest, after having attended Tablet PC workshops and witnessed some of the early mistakes and errors, I still feared the worst. I fully expected a royal shellacking of the Tablet PC by the mainstream press, and even the mainstream computer press. Amazingly, that didn't happen. With few exceptions, the initial reviews were restrained to mildly positive with hardly a mention of handwriting recognition at all. The general tenor was, "Hmmm. Interesting. I can see where such a device would come in handy."

Another one of my concerns also turned out to be unfounded. When I saw the Tablet PC, which had started life as a slate, gradually morphing into a notebook convertible during phase 2 of Microsoft's pre-launch, I feared that this new pen computing initiative would soon regress into nothing more than ink on notebooks and then disappear altogether as buyers were unwilling to pay the price premium of the digitizer. So far this hasn't happened. Many Tablet PCs are slates (Motion, HP, ViewSonic, etc.), and the two form factors seem to co-exist peacefully.

I must say, though, that the Tablet PC experience on a notebook convertible is very different from that on a slate. At last Fall's Comdex I attended a lecture given by a man who did Tablet PC training for corporations. His main advice was: "If you want to introduce the Tablet PC into your company, don't even give them a keyboard during training. If you do, they will simply use the devices like notebooks and never learn the true power of the Tablet PC Edition."

I found that to be absolutely true. I have been using a Toshiba Portege 3500 Tablet PC, which is a standard notebook whose display rotates and lays down flat so that the computer becomes a slate. I love the pen interface, but even as a 15-year veteran of pen computing and great supporter of ink and handwriting recognition, I almost always use the Portege as a notebook and not as a Tablet PC, and I rarely use its handwriting recognition. However, I would definitely miss some of the growing number of pen/ink "PowerToys" ("PowerTools" would be a much better name) that truly add to the usefulness of the computer. Microsoft's own SnippingTool, for example, is simply terrific. With it, you use the pen to draw a line around anything you find of interest, such as a part of a webpage or a document. You can then annotate the clip or mark it up. It will be saved in the special SnippingTool format or simply as a JPG file. It is priceless. Microsoft is aggressively fostering the development of more such power tools and utilities for the Tablet PC. They even have a competition on the Microsoft website (with Pen Computing Technology Editor Geoff Walker and myself serving as judges).

In contrast to my experience with the Portege, Pen Computing Executive Editor David MacNeill has fully embraced the slate experience with his HP Tablet PC. Dubbed "Concerto II" in our office due to its obvious resemblance to Compaq's remarkable pen convertible of the mid 1990s, Dave uses the HP primarily as a slate. He has a dock in the office, but then takes it home or on trips without it. He uses recognition and ink, and has become a great believer in Journal (see his column on page 80). He's found the slate to be his perfect electronic companion in many situations, from reading news in the morning via the built-in wireless LAN to taking notes to converting his manuals and other important documents into Microsoft Reader "books" that he stores on the HP.

How about sales? Has the Tablet PC been successful so far? It is too early to tell. 72,000 supposedly sold during the last three months of 2002, a decent number considering that the product wasn't even launched until early November. Some big companies are part of the Tablet PC initiative, others (like Gateway and Dell) are reselling tablet slates, some under their own brand. And almost every week we're seeing new vertical market tablets capable of running Microsoft's new OS. I'd say that justifies guarded optimism at the very least. And In-Stat of Scottsdale, Arizona, predicts a rapidly growing share of the overall notebook market to be Tablet PCs, up to five million by 2007.

That said, there remain some challenges. For example, I like the active Wacom digitizer with its sleek pens that never need a battery, but using it remains frustrating. Ink now flows beautifully thanks to Microsoft's smoothing algorithms, but calibrating the pen and making it work right along the perimeter of the display is a pain. The cursor also lags behind pen movements, and it simply doesn't feel like writing on paper. As for the Microsoft recognizer, it works well, but editing tools remain marginal and I really do want to be able to write on the entire screen and not just in a box. On the hardware side, Microsoft's initial recommendation for low power processors has been ignored. The megahertz race is on and as a result, battery life is less than expected, and most units get very hot. Maybe the new Centrino-powered models will be different. All in all, Microsoft's Tablet PC initiative is definitely off to a good start! Kudos to the team in Redmond for that. - - -

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer, a former corporate CIO, is editor-in-chief of Pen Computing Magazine and Publication Director of Digital Camera Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at