| Bill Gates at the launch of the Tablet PC in New York. (Reuters)
Think of it as a grown-up Etch A Sketch. The new tablet PCs — a breed of laptop-like computers built around pen input — debuted today, alongside a version of Microsoft’s Windows XP operating system designed specifically for handwriting recognition.
Aimed primarily at the corporate market, the new mobile devices, loaded with Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, will cost $2,000 and up, weigh less than most laptops (about 3 pounds), carry just a hard disk drive and feature an “electromagnetic digitiser:” a colour screen for writing and drawing with a special, dedicated “pen”. The device also has wireless Internet capability.
The tablet concept, for years a pet project of Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, has shown up in pre-production models, but today’s formal launch of the software completed the package. Microsoft has been previewing some of the functions, including the ability to circle part of a Web page and then paste that information into an e-mail.
A major feature, called Journal, offers a lined sheet of virtual “paper” on the screen and allows writing with a variety of virtual pens, markers and highlighters.
Microsoft is also making tweaks available, including a free download that lets all the programs in Office XP be “ink-aware” canvasses.
Preliminary reviews of the operating system’s key software product — handwriting recognition, or translating hand-written notes to text — have been mixed.
“I was disappointed,” said Alan Promisel, an analyst covering mobile computing for technology consultant IDC in Framingham, Mass. “The learning process of applying ink to (Microsoft applications) Word and PowerPoint wasn’t as intuitive as I would’ve liked. In fact, Microsoft had been de-emphasising the recognition aspect” of the tablet PC edition lately, he said.
The company, meanwhile, is working to make the software more adaptable to individual writing styles.
Several manufacturers, including Acer, Toshiba, Fujitsu and ViewSonic, have readied hardware for today. Some high-profile PC makers, notably Sony and Dell, are fence-sitting, at least initially.
The devices come in two designs. One is the traditional notebook-with-keyboard, like Acer’s Pentium III-powered subnotebook, the TravelMate 100.
For handwriting, the Acer’s 10.4-inch screen swivels 180 degrees, then bends back, hiding the keyboard and revealing a flat writing surface. The display operates in either a landscape or portrait mode, and can even be calibrated for left- or right-handers. The Acer’s battery life is estimated at 3 to 4 hours.
The second iteration is the single-piece tablet, or slate, which docks into a base that features a keyboard and ability to recharge the slate’s batteries.
Likely a niche product for the foreseeable future, the tablet PC, analysts say, is not a revolutionary introduction and probably won’t affect the mobile computing market until prices drop.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post