The Tablet PC: Evolution, Revolution ... or Nonevent?

For the PC to be truly ubiquitous, it will need to adapt to more natural interactions than a keyboard and mouse. Anyone who has felt the tinge of carpal tunnel syndrome probably understands why this is so. Microsoft and other companies have been working on various natural computing initiatives involving speech recognition and handwriting. Speech recognition is still many years away from being a mainstream technology, even though each Windows and Microsoft Office revision offers some improvements in the technology. However, Microsoft will address the handwriting matter this year with the Tablet PC.

The Tablet PC is a next-generation laptop featuring a convertible (i.e., swiveling) screen that lets you use the device as a laptop or as a tablet, depending on the situation. In laptop mode, you use the machine as you would use a traditional laptop; in tablet mode, you use a stylus and an onscreen keyboard to interact with the machine. But the Tablet PC isn't a big Pocket PC. Its screen features an active digitizer, which lets you use a special stylus—complete with real eraser and a right-mouse button—to interact with the PC in various ways, including adjusting the stylus pressure (e.g., pressing harder creates bolder strokes) and hovering the stylus an inch or so above the screen to guide the onscreen cursor. The underlying system is a full-featured PC running a special Windows XP version.

The Tablet PC's best feature is the software—Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. This new OS features everything in Windows XP Professional Edition, plus a variety of low-level technologies that the active digitizer and stylus require, new tablet-interaction software, a simple but fun Journal application, a tablet-specific game (yes, seriously), and hooks that tablet-enable various Office XP applications.

Thanks to the wonderful software, Tablet PCs demonstrate well. However, in the monotonous day-and-a-half reviewer's workshop I attended recently, various Microsoft representatives assumed infomercial roles, expounding again and again about how wonderful tablet interaction is and effectively killing the excitement. "The Tablet PC is a laptop on steroids," said Alexandra Loeb, Microsoft corporate vice president for the Tablet PC division. "It's a full PC, perfect for meetings, customer scenarios, sitting on the couch and reading, on an airplane. Anywhere a laptop typically gets left behind and paper is better ... it's about new \[computing\] scenarios. We said, 'lets do everything a laptop does, but address these new scenarios.'" At one point, I asked a Microsoft representative whether every Tablet PC buyer was going to get the same day-and-a-half introduction, and I'm positive he still doesn't know that I was being sarcastic.

The problem is that Tablet PCs don't make sense for most people. If you're a knowledge worker—excuse me, "information worker" (Microsoft changed your life designation this year)—you can probably type much faster and more efficiently than you can write by hand. And the data you create with a keyboard is much more easily exchanged with other users. The tablet form factor makes sense in only a few niche markets—medical, factory, legal—and in other instances in which typing on a laptop wouldn't make sense or be appropriate. It could also have huge implications in education. My favorite potential Tablet PC scenario—watching DVD movies on an airplane in tablet mode so that you don't have to worry about the person in front of you ratcheting down the seat and crushing the screen—isn't even possible because the optical drives on the first-generation devices are external.

I've shown the Tablet PC to several people, and they all have the same reactions. First, amazement. Microsoft's tablet software is a sight to behold. The natural-looking digital ink that you create by writing on the screen is gorgeous and accurate. The next reaction is puzzlement, because most people realize that they would never actually use or need such a device. And then the real questions begin. What if you wanted to exchange 10 pages of handwritten notes with a coworker? If that person doesn't have a Tablet PC, which today is everyone, then you would have two ugly choices: You could send the coworker 10 TIFF images (Microsoft curiously won't supply any viewer software for the tablet format), or you could use the tablet's handwriting-recognition software, which, while better than anything that came before it, still works poorly.

Now consider the flip side. Let's say we all own Tablet PCs, and you want to exchange that same 10 pages of notes. Why would I want notes in your lousy handwriting? I would need to do the handwriting recognition myself, which would take time, and my results would be worse than if you had done it because I can't read your writing to begin with.

I have a lot more information about the Tablet PC on the SuperSite for Windows ( ). The conclusion is that Windows XP Tablet PC Edition is a great portable OS with limited uses in niche markets and for so-called "corridor warriors" (another great new Microsoft term) who move around the office a lot and need to take lots of notes. I pity you if you're such a person.

Laptop of the Month: Acer TM100
This month's Laptop of the Month is the Acer TM100, the short-term loaner Tablet PC we received at the reviewer's workshop. This wonderful little machine features a convertible screen and stylus, a slightly curved and somewhat ergonomic keyboard, integrated wired and wireless networking, and a full complement of ports, including two USB and one FireWire; not bad for a device weighing just 3.2 pounds.

The Acer TM100 has a 10.4" XGA screen, which works better than you might expect, and is extremely portable. Sadly, the unit's optical storage is external through USB 1.1 (and thus slow) and requires its own power supply, adding to the bulk of what you must carry if you bring it on the road.

The TM100 is quite fast, given its fairly low-end Pentium III-M chip and 256MB of memory. Battery life, however, is amazing: On the trip home from Seattle, I was able run the device for most of the flight's first leg and in the Chicago airport—a total uptime of more than 3.5 hours. The biggest question about any convertible tablet is durability. Despite the number of latches required to secure the screen in its various positions, the Acer TM100 seems like it will hold up well over time. Like the Tablet PC software, however, only time will tell whether any real audience exists for this type of device. The SuperSite article (see link above) has photos and more information about the Acer device.

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