Tablet PCs: More Impressive Than You Think

I'm not a gadget person—at least, I don't believe I am. I have the potential to be one, though. I had one of the original Compaq iPAQ Pocket PCs (which runs Windows CE) with wireless Internet access, and I hated it so much that I almost cast it into the sea, cussing at it as it flew. The device was great for reading information, but I couldn't use the stylus to write email messages (or anything else, for that matter). The handwriting-recognition engines that run on small devices are weak and inept. But the most frustrating problem was the left-handers' curse associated with using stylus-based devices like the Pocket PC. Like most left-handers, I hook my left hand when writing so that I can see what I've written. The left-handers' curse is when my fingers and other parts of my left hand accidentally and casually touch the Pocket PC's screen. Whether I'm tapping the stylus on a representation of a keyboard or simply using the handwriting recognition, the Pocket PC's attempt to translate these extraneous touches causes a scrambled mayhem of words.

I religiously use a Research In Motion (RIM) BlackBerry device, but only because I receive approximately 150 email messages a day and the thought of having to read that much email each night is terrifying. RIM provides awesome coast-to-coast service and software, and a RIM device works even in airplanes up to about 10,000' and every time you encounter satellites at higher elevations. (Yes, I do realize that I'm not supposed to send and receive email during a flight.) I've become proficient at typing email messages with both thumbs. The device isn't ideal, but it's effective for short messages. I wish I had the power of a Windows OS on the BlackBerry, though.

Why do I tell you all this? Because not one of the new handheld devices that have proliferated in the market over the past few years has impressed or enticed me. The new T-Mobile Smartphone 2002 and other cell phones that boast Windows CE on a cellular device with acceptable Internet connectivity do nothing for me. You can use the cell phone to read email or Microsoft Word documents, but such devices just aren't efficient for inputting information. Microsoft Compact .NET Framework capabilities on these devices let you build and run some pretty awesome applications, but you still have to deal with problems inputting data.

When I heard about Tablet PCs more than a year ago, I immediately dismissed them as useless. I haven't been that wrong since I predicted the collapse of an Internet overburdened by a gazillion users. How was I supposed to know that a little company named Cisco Systems would succeed at making a poorly designed infrastructure viable with these "router things"?

A few weeks ago, Lance Lillie, a principal technical specialist at Microsoft, gave me a demonstration of Microsoft Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, and I was blown away. Before seeing Lillie's incredible demo, I assumed XP Tablet PC Edition would simply afflict me with the left-handers' curse on a larger device running a dummied-down version of Windows. I was wrong. First, the Microsoft Tablet PC doesn't run Windows CE. The device runs a full-blown version of Windows XP and has several enhancements. On November 7, Microsoft will launch XP Tablet PC Edition, a superset of Windows XP Professional Edition that adds pen-based capabilities to notebook computers. And left-handers won't need to endure the left-handers' curse, because the Tablet PC uses electromagnetic technology that recognizes the stroke of only the pen. You can touch the screen as much as you want, and it won't register a response.

In the coming weeks, more than a dozen manufacturers will release Tablet PC models ranging from convertible designs with hinged or detachable screens to rugged slates with innovative docking solutions that let you instantly grab and go and that can take the punishment of road warriors like me. In my next column, I'll drill into the features of these computers and XP Tablet PC Edition. Until then, I've got to get my hands on one of those Tablet PCs! I suggest you attend one of the free XP Tablet PC Edition launch events that will start nationwide on November 7 ( ).

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