Microsoft bets on tablets

After a year of hints and glimpses into what to expect, Microsoft Canada Co., along with several hardware and software vendors finally launched the pen-based Tablet PC in early November.

Frank Clegg, the Mississauga, Ont.-based president of Microsoft Canada, described the Tablet PC form factor as “kicking off the next phase in the evolution of moving forward,” in his keynote address to press, analysts and partners at the recent launch event in Toronto.

Eight hardware vendors were on hand to showcase their varied versions of the tablet, all of which use Microsoft Windows XP Tablet PC Edition operating system, which Elliot Katz, Microsoft Canada’s product manager for the Tablet PC, described as a superset of Windows XP Professional.

The operating system runs all Windows XP Professional applications, but also features the new Windows Journal utility, which allows users to write directly on the tablet’s screen using a pen tool; a Tablet Input Panel; Sticky Notes; a handwriting recognition engine; and the .Net framework.

“It’s powerful, mobile and versatile,” Katz said.

Designed for the enterprise space, the Tablet PC operating system will most benefit users that fit into three different categories, according to Katz.

The first is the road warrior, which he described as the “travelling professional.” The second sector is what Microsoft is referring to as the “corridor warrior,” a professional who is often drawn into meetings. Thirdly, the Tablet PC will benefit professionals in specific verticals such as education and medicine.

“The Tablet PC is a big bet for Microsoft and our partners,” Katz said.

These partners include Acer Canada, Electrovaya Inc., Fujitsu PC Corp., Hewlett-Packard Canada, Motion Computing, Toshiba of Canada ISG, ViewSonic Canada and XPlore Technologies Corp. While each of these vendors’ offerings share the common Microsoft operating system, the designs of the tablets themselves are the differentiators.

The tablets are currently available in three different designs: the traditional clamshell design, which features an attached keyboard; the slate design, which uses a detachable keyboard; and the hybrid design, which is a combination of the first two form factors.

While these aren’t the first slate-type PCs to hit the market, Microsoft and its partners insist that the timing of this release is right.

“Within five years, most portable PCs will be Tablet PCs,” Katz predicted.

Michelle Warren, market analyst with Evans Research Corp. in Toronto, sees the products as eventually taking over the handheld and notebook market, but noted that it’s not likely to happen any time soon.

“I think there’s going to be a ramp up period – it’s going to take some time,” she said.

According to Warren, the reason for this is because the Tablet PC is a niche product with a niche price point.

“The advantage over other notebooks is with the handwriting recognition and rich text capability, which is really a feather in the cap for these products. But it’s going to take some time to make a dent in the notebook market,” she said.

Bill Hogarth, director of education for the York Region District School Board, described how beta testing Tablet PCs within his district opened up new opportunities for his teachers and administrators.

“This has made a tremendous difference in the way we see the classroom and the way that teachers use technology,” Hogarth said. “The tablet makes the connection between the learner and the teacher really powerful.”