Previewing the Microsoft Tablet PC: not shipping till November

by Guy Kewney | posted on 26 June 2002

The problem with a notebook PC is simple; it can't be used standing up. The benefit of Microsoft's new Tablet design is equally simple: it can be. Does this mean we'll throw away our notebooks, and get Tablets instead?

Guy Kewney

Microsoft faces an uphill battle in persuading the market that the Tablet is actually set in stone - as usual, there are too many failed attempts in the past. But more to the point, perhaps is the question "Who will buy this thing?"

There's no question but that if someone gave me one, I'd love it. I've played, briefly, with one and it does seem to be getting close to the point where you can use a pen-and-paper idiom to make sensible hand-written notes and diagrams while standing up in an interview situation - and you definitely can't do this with a notebook PC.

But the trouble is, I'm not convinced that this is something I'd buy instead of a notebook; and nor is the industry.

Industry analyst Steve Brazier, president of Canalys, has analysed the new machines. "There is an opportunity to use tablet PCs to innovate around the notebook format," he says; "there's a segment of the notebook market which would appreciated twisting screens into the portrait orientation, and writing on them. But the question is: will it be the main machine?"

<1/> Steve Brazier

There are several reasons why Brazier and others suspect it won't be; most observers think we'll want to have a desktop or a notebook as well. And, as Brazier observes: "If we do have another machine, will we really have the budget for the Tablet?"

That's the question we probably can't answer till October, when Microsoft will roll the machines out in a grand fanfare, and reveal pricing plans. But hints from manufacturers like Acer and HP suggest that the price is going to be well above the thousand-Euro barrier. That, thinks Brazier, is too much. "It has to be a notebook replacement, or it's just a niche application; and in most of those niche cases, the PDA is the more attractive option, because it's pocketable."

The key problem with the Tablet is the old one of power versus power consumption. Many of these devices use the ultra-low power Crusoe chip as the processor. While the Crusoe processor is stingy about battery consumption, it's at the expense of performance, and while performance is no longer the prime concern of PC buyers, it is an issue. And others use Pentium III chips; performance ceases to be the issue, but power consumption suddenly becomes a worry.

It remains to be seen whether the Tablet PC is fast enough to be used as a full-time PC, or whether people will feel the need to have something faster for everyday processing. If they feel they need a desktop or a standard notebook, then this has to sell for well under a thousand Euros, thinks Brazier.

Of course, the Tablet PC will be wireless-enabled - as will all notebook computers come the new year; and Microsoft VP Jeff Raikes, launching the Tablet, made it just part of an "overall focus on solutions" for the coming year.

<1/> Jeff Raikes

Contributions to "solutions" for information workers, said Raikes, include a new version of Office, which is scheduled to be available around the middle of next year; the Tablet PC, which will launch on 7th November - and the new Microsoft Windows Powered Pocket PC 2002 Phone Edition, which is on sale next week in the UK as the XDA.

"Information workers broaden the definition of what we think of today as the knowledge worker," Raikes said. "Information workers use technology, but they are from a broader spectrum of work. They can be nurses or insurance agents. They do not always sit in front of a computer eight hours a day, but they are often mobile, use technology to manage information and make decisions, and they need more flexible and business-appropriate computing solutions. Our challenge as an industry is to develop software and hardware products that better understand information workers' needs, map more effectively to their day-to-day work, and measurably increase their productivity."

Raikes added that the current business climate of reduced IT spending reflects a broader issue. "CEOs and IT management know that increasing the productivity of their employees benefits their operations and their bottom line. They just want to know that the return on their technology will be tangible investments in the form of greater productivity. That's our challenge as an industry and my personal focus."

In a keynote presentation to TECHXNY in New York, Raikes demonstrated several products, which he described as "first steps toward a richer set of information worker solutions."

Amongst the toys he played with on stage were prototype Tablet PC designs - from Fujitsu Motion Computing and Toshiba - but there are known to be others in the pipeline from companies like Acer and Sony. Raikes also demonstrated new application software for the Tablet PC; from software developers Corel, Adobe and FranklinCovey/Agilix. He also announced SAP AG as the latest major software developer to support the Tablet PC initiative. SAP is evaluating solutions for SAP mobile users "to take advantage of the Tablet PC's rich digital ink technology."

Probably the Tablet stands or falls by the usability of Microsoft Reader 2.5, the latest version of the company's on-screen reading application, "which brings the benefits of immersive and active reading to the Tablet PC through its large display and high-resolution display capabilities," says the blurb. It really is a big improvement on earlier-generation hand-writing recognition - being able to spot graphs, diagrams, lists and other common scribbles, and converting them into sharp images. It remains to be seen whether it's good enough for everyday.

Prototype Tablet PCs with the beta version of Microsoft Windows XP Professional Tablet PC Edition will be deployed in several customer locations within 30 days, Raikes added.

"The Tablet PC represents a major advancement in how PCs can increase productivity in the workplace," Raikes said. "When they ship on Nov. 7, Tablet PCs will enable information workers to use their computers in new ways, in new places and more frequently than they ever have."