Gates & Co. launch the Tablet PC

NEW YORK – Microsoft Corp. borrowed some of Broadway’s glamour for its Thursday Tablet PC send-off, during which Bill Gates and a host of top executives from companies manufacturing the devices gathered at the Ambassador Theatre here to demo and publicize the new PCs.

While Gates proclaimed himself optimistic about the market’s eagerness for the new devices and forecast shortages as buyers clamour for the devices as soon as they are available, one executive at the launch adopted a more pragmatic tone.

“I think we all know new categories start with early adopters and then, as technologies become more mature and the price points become more mainstream, that’s when the growth explosion really takes off,” Scott Eckert, chief executive officer (CEO) of Motion Computing Inc., said during a press conference.

Executives from vendors including Fujitsu Ltd., Hewlett-Packard Co., Acer Corp., NEC Corp. and ViewSonic Corp. turned out to support the Tablet PC and discuss their expectations for it.

“This is about drawing new users and creating an additional category,” said Hewlett-Packard Chairman and CEO Carly Fiorina. “Our objective is to continue to innovate in a pragmatic way, and also to continue to drive our cost structure even lower. This is all about the combination of the right price point for the right value, the right market.”

Handwritten e-mail messages, a feature enabled by the Tablet PC’s “ink” technology, are already floating around at Hewlett-Packard, she said.

Gates also discussed the Tablet PC’s ink technology during his keynote address. For the past several months, the Tablet PC has been his primary machine, he said, and in his role as Microsoft’s chief software architect, he’s been verbose in his feedback to the product team.

One of the first problems that cropped up with the ink and handwriting-recognition technology emerged after he began testing it. While the product team described the software as working quite well, it served Gates badly. His left-handedness was the problem, he realized: Only right-handed testers had worked with the software until then.

“I think my record was 30 e-mails in one day, some titled things like ‘the poor left-hander’ or ‘time for more integration,'” he said.

Tablet PC integration will be a major part of the next version of Microsoft Office, due out in mid-2003, Gates said. While an add-on pack is now available with Tablet PC support, Office 11 “will go even further in terms of its native support for ink in the applications…in fact, a lot of the work in Office is based on that,” Gates said.

Microsoft enlisted a trio of celebrities to demo the Tablet PC’s features: Writer Amy Tan, actor Rob Lowe and management guru Stephen Covey.

Tan showed off doodles she’d drawn and notes for her current novel scribbled on the device, while enthusing about the illuminated screen that lets her read at night without disturbing her sleeping husband. Lowe said he uses his tablet to take notes on scripts he’s memorizing for his television role on The West Wing.

The ability to work with and transmit handwritten notes was a focal point of those speaking at the launch event, with Gates going so far as to predict that “throughout this decade, ink will become as popular as the graphic user interface became in Windows.”

Tablet-like devices have hit the market before and struggled to find buyers, most notably, the Newton handheld released by Apple Computer Inc. in 1993 and discontinued in 1998. But battery, LCD (liquid crystal display), digitizer and processor technologies have matured to the point where they are now ready to support a “ready for prime time” tablet, Gates said.

“It’s these advances, together with the breakthroughs we’ve been able to make on the software side, that said to us, ‘Now is the time,'” he said.