New Tablet PC Design Proves Microsoft Needs Its Partners

I'm sort of infamous to my editors at Windows & .NET Magazine for being the guy "who hates the Tablet PC," although that's an inaccurate and overly generalized attribution of my feelings toward Microsoft's latest hardware/software initiative. You might recall from my June review of the Tablet PC, "The Tablet PC: Evolution, Revolution ... or Nonevent?" that the device and its specialized software, Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, are impressive. But I expressed concern that data interoperability would be a problem because of Microsoft's reliance on digital ink as a native data format. I believe that digital ink is partially a technological red herring, hiding the weakness of Microsoft's handwriting recognition software. Don't get me wrong: Handwriting recognition is better than ever in XP Tablet software, but for the most part, the technology is still inadequate. And don't get me started about the state of voice recognition.

That said, I do think the Tablet PC is cool; however, no such thing as a Tablet PC, per se, actually exists. Microsoft's hardware partners took the Tablet PC's design specs and turned the device into a true product line, with widely differing types of Tablet PCs. So instead of one product type, the Tablet PC is a family of devices, which is good, because the Tablet PC's original design was very limited.

Microsoft announced the Tablet PC at the Fall COMDEX trade show in November 2000. That prototype design was a slab-type tablet device (what Microsoft now calls a "slate") that used a low-voltage Transmeta Crusoe chip. After the keynote, Microsoft Product Manager Bert Keely told me (accurately, as it turned out) that the Tablet PC would be available through various OEMs by the end of 2002, with Microsoft handling the software design.

My reaction to the original Tablet PC was what established my reputation as a tablet-device hater. Because Microsoft's design didn't include a keyboard (unless you tethered the tablet to a desktop-based docking station), I didn't think the Tablet PC was a device I would travel with. I wasn't the only one who had problems with the slate design. As Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates noted in a question-and-answer session before the Tablet PC launch event last week in New York, Microsoft's early designs were "crude, like hardware that looked like it was designed by a software company."

By the November 2001 COMDEX trade show, Microsoft's partners appeared with their first takes on innovative Tablet PC hardware designs. The best designs had keyboards, and Acer jump-started a new notebook type when it introduced its convertible laptop, the Acer C100. You can use the convertible laptop as you would use a regular laptop, dramatically increasing its usefulness. Or, you can swivel and fold the screen over the keyboard and use it as a typical tablet device. I expect Acer's device, as well as convertible laptops from Toshiba and other companies, to be quite popular because they don't leave functionality behind when you're on the road.

Then, at the Tablet PC launch event last week, I got my first look at a unique new type of Tablet PC that almost defies categorization. Hewlett-Packard (HP) is now selling its innovative Compaq Tablet PC TC1000, a $1700 device that features a unique 3-way hardware design. The basic tablet is a slate-style device that weighs about 3 pounds, but HP includes a separate keyboard (bringing the total weight to about 5 pounds) that you can clip to the back of the slate or clip to the bottom of the slate in landscape mode, giving you a unique take on the modern laptop.

But the HP device goes beyond this interesting dual-mode functionality. When outfitted with an optional $300 docking station, the TC1000 becomes a full desktop PC. The docking station features a moving arm, similar to the new iMac's, that lets you position the slate at various viewing angles, including a low angle that's perfect for writing directly on the screen. And you can swivel the screen between portrait and landscape modes. Furthermore, the docking station includes several unique features, such as a multibay slot for adding laptop optical drives and other add-ons, and numerous extra ports, such as USB 2.0. But the docking station's best feature is its VGA port, which lets you use the Tablet PC in dual-monitor mode, with one display driven through the slate's screen and the other driven through an optional second monitor at potentially higher resolution. This dual monitor mode is very cool—and useful: You might keep Microsoft Outlook running in landscape mode on the slate's screen and then open Microsoft Word and Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) windows on the larger display, for example. And because this is a typical Windows dual-head view, you can move the cursor and drag files and windows between the two screens. When you pop the Tablet PC off the docking station, everything "automagically" moves to the slate's screen.

I plan to review the TC1000 in a future issue of Windows & .NET Magazine, but my first look at this hardware has me rethinking the whole Tablet PC concept: a three-in-one device that does it all? Now that's innovative. And it's a good thing that Microsoft let its hardware partners run with the basic Tablet PC hardware specification. If they hadn't, we'd be stuck with crude slate devices with limited market potential. Instead, I now believe that the Tablet PC doesn't just represent the future of mobile computing but rather represents the future of general-purpose computing, period. Someday, all future PCs might be able to trace their roots to this cool little HP design. I can't wait.

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