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The Tale of the Wonderful, Magical, Mystery Tablet PC

It's hard to overstate the hold that Apple has over many people, not just in the tech world, but also in the general populace (so to speak). But this hold has reached absurd levels in recent months as rumors have intensified about a possible Apple tablet device. As is so often the case, these rumors have evolved over time just as has the release date for this mythical device.

The whole thing is ridiculous, of course, but even more so when you realize that a tablet device much like that which Apple is supposedly working on--I can neither confirm nor deny the rumors--is already available elsewhere if you want it. And while we used to call such things Tablet PCs, today they're just PCs. And 8 years after Microsoft first pioneered this market, they're better than ever.

Now, before any of you Apple fanatics in the audience crank up whatever NeXTStep-based email client you're using these days, relax. I know that Apple was a pioneer in the early days of pen computing, the PDA predecessor generation to today's Tablet PCs. And I know that Apple has lately been adding multi-touch capabilities to its Mac OS X that mimic some of the functionality that's ingrained in its iPhone smart phone platform.

That's nice, but I'm talking about mainstream computers here. A decade ago, then Microsoft CEO Bill Gates championed a project within the software giant to create a new type of computing experience based around the tablet form factor. And Microsoft's hardware partners delivered the first true Tablet PCs in 2002 alongside the initial version of Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. (Read my review, from way back in 2002.) At the time, Tablet PCs were offered in two main form factors--keyboard-less slate designs and convertible laptops that could be used like regular laptops or contorted, Transformer-style, into a slate.

Tablet PCs didn't really take off in the market in any meaningful way though they're still used in certain vertical markets like manufacturing, medical, and even education. There are many places to point the blame for the general apathy around Tablet PCs, including the early decision to position Tablet PCs as more expensive, premium devices and the fact that a tablet with less than full-day battery life isn't going to work well in those verticals I just mentioned.

But give Microsoft some credit for persevering and for doing the one thing that it rarely gets enough credit for: Pushing technology that used to be expensive and difficult to the masses and bringing along all the economies of scale that come from doing so. Over the years, Microsoft's Tablet PC software evolved from being a separate, special thing into just being part of Windows. The company added touch and then, in Windows 7, multi-touch capabilities to the system, making stylus- and touch-based interfaces first class interface paradigms alongside mouse and keyboard.

Today, these Tablet PC technologies are just part of all mainstream Windows 7 versions (Home Premium and higher). The result has been an explosion recent multi-touch devices that dramatically expand beyond the slate and convertible form factors of the past to include desktops, like all-in-ones, at a variety of price points. In fact, you can get a touch-screen PC these days for just a couple of hundred bucks.

Now, these low-end consumer devices are no more relevant in business than the possibly mythical Apple tablet that started me down this chain of thought. But I've been using a current generation convertible Tablet PC as my main notebook since September and it's clear to me that this mix of interfaces--keyboard and mouse/pointer, yes, but also full Tablet PC facilities including multi-touch--represents the ideal functional experience for today's business user. The machine I'm using, a Lenovo ThinkPad X200 Tablet PC, is a top notch notebook computer, of course. But it's also my gateway to the new set of multi-touch experiences that are unlocked by Windows 7. (I wrote about the new ThinkPads previously in Lenovo, Windows 7, and the Death of Crapware.)

My love of ThinkPads aside, it really is the multi-touch functionality that sells this machine. Combined with a device that can be used as a slate opens up new casual computing scenarios, multi-touch is perfect for keeping up on email or browsing the web from home. And as Microsoft's Tablet PC platform has matured, so has the ecosystem around it. The pen- and touch-friendly OneNote, part of Microsoft's ubiquitous Office, is becoming one of the most used applications in the suite. In fact, according to Microsoft, OneNote usage will soon surpass that of PowerPoint. (The top three Office apps by usage are Word, Outlook, and Excel, in that order. PowerPoint is fourth.)

Students are, of course, what's driving OneNote usage. And these students are entering the workforce and expecting the same capabilities in their new jobs that they had in school. And if Microsoft is right, this "idea processor" will soon sit alongside Word and Outlook at the top of the Office usage heap. Part of the reason OneNote is so popular, of course, is that it takes advantage of the democratization of Tablet PC features across the various Windows versions. A democratization that occurred thanks to Microsoft, and not Apple.

So wait on that Apple tablet if you must. But if you're looking for the best of what tablet computing has to offer, something that's relevant for businesses as well, it's here today. It's called a PC.

An edited version of this commentary appeared in the December 8, 2009 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul

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