Can a Few Tablets Cure Industry Ills?
By Mark Frauenfelder, Mon Jan 14 00:00:00 GMT 2002

Tablet PCs promise to change the way you think about mobile computing. But can they follow through?

On November 11, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates stood before a crowd of 11,000 people at Comdex in Las Vegas, clutching a book-sized tablet in his hand. This, he proclaimed, holding the gadget over his head, is the future of personal computing.

"The PC took computing out of the back office and into everyone's office," he told the audience. "The tablet takes cutting-edge PC technology and makes it available wherever you want it, which is why I'm already using a tablet as my everyday computer. It's a PC that is virtually without limits - and within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America."

The last person who caused such a hubbub by showing a tablet to a crowd of people was Moses.

Gates proceeded to demonstrate the keyboard-less, wireless computer by showing off a special tablet PC version of Groove (a kind of real-time collaboration software) as well as tablet versions of AutoDesk's CAD program, and Microsoft's own software that lets people send hand-written instant messages to each other.

This was the second year in a row that Gates stood on stage to tout the tablet PC at Comdex. This year, however, there was some substance behind his proclamations - no fewer than ten major computer manufacturers announced they'll be making "Tablet PCs" according to Microsoft's design specifications.

Why take a tablet?

The idea of a tablet PC is appealing. People use their hands to manipulate objects in the real word. But a keyboard or a mouse removes your hands from the things you are manipulating on the screen. You have to position your fingers in the right place on the keyboard and concern yourself with where the cursor is.

A stylus and a touch screen, on the other hand, allow you to directly control screen objects. Drawing a picture on a tablet PC is similar to drawing a picture on a cave wall - it's been the preferred method of input for tens of thousands of years. The only difference is, instead using pigment to make a mark on a surface, you're using a stylus that transmits radio waves to the computer to let the screen know its location.

A tablet-style computer is ideal for college students and office workers who need to take notes in classrooms and meetings. Unlike a laptop, you don't have to tap away on a keyboard. Just prop it in you lap and scribble on it as if it were a pad of paper. Later, you can save the scribbles as machine-readable text (provided the handwriting recognition works well) and email copies using the wireless net connection to your friends and colleagues who slept in late that day.

Not just a giant size PDA

At first glance, a tablet PC looks like a big Palm computer or Pocket PC. Microsoft is trying its hardest to keep you from thinking that's all it is.

One problem with pocket-sized PCs is that its operating systems and applications are watered-down, compromised versions of the real thing. Windows CE is not really Windows, even though there's a superficial resemblance. People want all their devices to be talking the same language, so to speak. That why Microsoft is making sure the tablet PC's operating system (called Microsoft Windows XP Tablet PC Edition) can run all the programs that run on a regular Windows computer.

Microsoft and the hardware manufacturers want users to think of the Tablet PC as their primary computer, not just a companion device that they have to sync up to their desktop machine. In fact, with a tablet PC, you'll be able to attach a keyboard to it and it'll behave just like a regular notebook computer.

The metaphor for the tablet PC is a sheet of paper. And the metaphor for the stylus is a pen. With that in mind, the Tablet PC division at Microsoft has a rule about the way information should be stored on tablets: "Leave ink as ink." That means when you write notes on a tablet, it must store the notes exactly as they are written. Sure, the tablet can attempt to translate your scrawl into machine-readable text, but it should do that in the background.

Poorly functioning automatic text conversion is one of the big reasons Apple's Newton failed. That ill-fated device tried to recognize words as soon as the user entered them. The results were usually hilarious ("Meet client for lunch" could end up reading "Melt clown pun hunts"), but of little use to anyone besides experimental poets.

The tablet PC, on the other hand, stores your notes the way you write them, complete with misspellings, sketched maps, and caricatures of your boss in the margin. (The downside to this is that you won't be able to do a text search to retrieve your handwritten notes; you'll have do go through your electronic notes page-by-page just as you would with an ordinary paper notebook.)

A stylus offers more than the ability to draw and write directly to the screen, though. Its "digital ink" can be endlessly manipulated. For example, you can edit regular typed text in the same way you would use a pen to mark up a printed document, but with a tablet and stylus, your edits will be incorporated on the fly.

Ten in, one out

So far, ten computer manufacturers are planning to make tablet PCs based on Microsoft's specifications, including NEC, Fujitsu, Toshiba, Compaq, and Acer. Even though Microsoft is calling the shots, it has no intention of making tablet PCs itself. Bill Gates promised a long time ago that he would stay out of the hardware business. He broke that promise, of course, with the Xbox, but there's little doubt that he'll steer clear of manufacturing tablets.

Microsoft has merely drafted the specifications, and has licensed them to the computer makers, who will design, manufacture and market the devices. No one has announced prices for the Tablet PC yet, but several manufacturers say they'll cost about as much as their mid-range laptops.

Tom Bernhard, director of marketing for pen tablets at Fujitsu, believes tablets are an evolutionary step in the progress of personal computers. While laptops are great for business travelers, he says, they're no good unless you are sitting down. A tablet PC can be used while you're standing up, even waiting in line.

You'll see the first Tablet PCs in the second half of 2002. In March, Transmeta Corporation of Santa Clara announced that it would work with Microsoft to develop its low-power microprocessor for the tablet PC. Transmeta's family of processors, called Crusoe, are designed to run at a lower temperature than chips made by competitors such as Intel, Motorola, and AMD.

A large number of software developers have signed on too, including Adobe, Corel, and Autodesk. They're currently working on new applications and extensions to existing programs to take advantage of the tablet PC's pen capabilities.

One major player who's conspicuously absent from the tablet-makers, much Microsoft's chagrin, is the world's largest PC maker: Dell. According to CEO Michael Dell, his company's research has shown that people aren't clamoring for tablets.

Now Dell is well known for being industry followers, not leaders, in hardware innovation, and it's a safe bet to say that Dell will join the ranks of the tablet makers should there prove to be a market for them.

Will tablets take off?

Nevertheless, Dell does have a point. After all, what's so bad about using a keyboard and a trackpad to enter data? Some people hate using styluses. Proponents of tablet PCs, argue that laptops are lousy because the fliptop screen acts as a barrier when people use them in meetings, and that the click click click of a user tapping on a keyboard irritates other people. They say a tablet PC, on the other hand, is as innocuous as a pad of paper. (But that won't be true for a while. Imagine the attention you'll get the first time you walk into a weekly status meeting with a Tablet PC under your arm.)

Even so, Microsoft and its hardware partners have their work cut out for them. Many companies (including Microsoft) have sunk millions of dollars in the past decade trying to come up with a successful tablet PC and have failed. Early tablets, such as the GRiDPad (introduced in 1989) were cursed with a clunky, bulky, and underpowered design.

Even the more elegant GRiD 2260, which featured an ingenious foldout keyboard mechanism (designed by Palm Pilot inventor Jeff Hawkins), couldn't garner enough attention to survive. Business users wanted nothing to do with tablets. There's a bad memory associated with them.

Today's tablet will be different, promises Microsoft. For one thing, batteries are much better than they were ten years ago. And we are already starting to see displays that use OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) technology instead of LCDs. Unlike LCDs, which require a battery sucking light to illuminate the screen, OLEDs generate their own light, at a much lower rate of power consumption than today's LCDs.

In addition, RAM and hard drive capacities are a hundred times bigger than they were in the last crop of tablets. Perhaps most importantly, today's tablet PCs will have wireless Internet connectivity, turning them into the most powerful portable devices available.

The question is, who needs tablet PCs more - users, or the computer industry? PC manufacturers are experiencing the first decline in income since 1986, and they're desperately looking for ways to revive sales. Sure, the recession has something to do with sluggish PC sales, but a big reason why people and business aren't buying computers is that they're happy with the systems they already own.

Manufacturers and Microsoft hope the tablet PC will be enough of a technological leap forward to convince customers to upgrade.

Mark Frauenfelder is a writer and illustrator from Los Angeles.