Prototype Tablet PCs Take Spotlight
LAS VEGAS -- Will your next portable computer be a tablet PC? Microsoft hopes so, and it has lined up a handful of partners that are showing prototype models of its reference design and plan to ship the real thing in mid-2002.
For the second year here at Comdex, the software behemoth is pushing
tablet computing that combines the portability of a laptop, the convenience of
pen and paper, and of course Microsoft software. Showing prototypes scheduled
to ship by mid-2002 are Compaq, Acer, Fujitsu, Toshiba, NEC, and several
Taiwanese vendors. Microsoft
The promise of tablet computer systems is simply that they are as easy to use as a pen and piece of paper. You can write directly on the screen and the handwritten notes can be neatly stored as a file. Advocates tout tablet PCs for use by professionals like doctors or insurance agents, who can fill out forms on the go without reentering data from notes scrawled on pieces of paper.
"Tablet PCs will put an end to the pile management style of organizing pieces of paper," says Ted Clark, vice president of Compaq's Tablet PC division.
Covering all bases, Microsoft also is tackling the handwriting
recognition challenge. At his Comdex keynote address Sunday night, Chairman
Other software developers are crafting Tablet PC products as well.
Groove Networks, which makes Web-savvy collaboration software, has announced
support for Microsoft's Tablet PC OS. (Microsoft
Windows XP Tablet PC Edition will contain software to support voice recognition, the company says. Vendors may add microphones to their Tablet PC models, or you could plug in an external mike to take advantage of the voice input option. Microsoft implementation of XP for Tablet PCs will also include hooks to Microsoft's .Net platform of Web-based services.
Dozens of prototype Tablet PCs from various vendors are on display here at Comdex. Toshiba is showing a sleek 8-by-4-inch Tablet PC running a beta version of Windows XP Pro. It looked more like a handheld Pocket PC than a new form factor. Compaq has a prototype about the size of a 1-inch-thick clipboard.
Acer is showing an ultra-thin TM-100 notebook with a 10-inch display. The monitor swivels around 360 degrees and can be folded over the keyboard to become a Tablet PC. Acer representatives say the unit will ship in the spring, running an OS from Acer because Windows XP Tablet PC Edition won't be available yet. It will be able to run Microsoft's Tablet PC software when that OS comes out. Acer expects to price its TM-100 about the same as a laptop with a 10-inch display.
Acer expects the handwriting recognition functions will draw interest, says Mike Griffin, vice president of sales and marketing. "People like to naturally use pens and paper," Griffin says. "Tablet PC is a new model of computing bringing technology to humanity."
Microsoft has announced four new hardware manufacturers among its Tablet PC partners, for a total of nine. Among the newcomers are NEC, Taiwanese-based firms FIC and Tatung, and chipmaker Via Technologies, which has developed a hardware reference design.
Tablet PCs are not new. Fujitsu, for example, has been selling tablet PCs for nine years to the medical, insurance, and manufacturing industries. However, Microsoft's support--similar to the approach it takes promoting the Pocket PC--may provide a standard and boost interest. Tablet PC vendors say they hope the design goes mainstream and is eventually commonplace at office meetings, used by workers away from their desktop PCs.
The time is right for tablet PCs because of a confluence of technology
advancements, says Andrew Dixon, group marketing manager for Microsoft's Tablet
PC division. He says energy efficient but powerful microprocessors enable
numerous uses, such as accurate handwriting transcription and voice
recognition. Also, the
"Tablet PCs are just better notebook computers," Dixon says. He forecasts that by 2004 nearly a quarter of notebook computers sold will have a tablet PC component. Also, he and the hardware manufacturers say they expect the newest crop of tablet PCs will always cost about as much as their notebook PC brethren.