Microsoft’s plan to have today’s prototype models of tablet PCs out the door by the middle of next year may be a bit unrealistic, according to one observer.

For the second year in a row, Microsoft is pushing tablet computing at the technology showcase Comdex in Las Vegas. Boasting that tablet computing combines laptop portability with pen and paper convenience, Microsoft and companies such as Compaq, Acer, Fujitsu, Toshiba and NEC plan to have the products, along with a version of Windows XP for the Tablet PC, to market by the second half of 2002.

And while Albert Daoust, director of special projects at Evans Research, thinks it may be overzealous in their timeline, he said Microsoft does have a legacy of persistence on its side.

“Microsoft may never have been the best, but they are the most persistent,” Daoust said from his Toronto office. “They don’t get there (to market) as fast as they assured some people they would, and I find it improbable that we are going to be that close in 2002. I mean, does anyone remember how horrible the first version of Windows was? There are some people who release horrible products and that’s the end of them. Microsoft seems to release something that’s horrible, they come back, and they get better over time. You assume that, once Microsoft is backing something, they will get a good product out there.”

Andrew Dixon, group market manager for Microsoft’s tablet PC division, has an even braver prediction for the future of tablet computing. He expects that, by 2004, nearly a quarter of notebook computers sold will have a tablet PC component.

“What we are hearing form the industry is that they are very excited about this because it represents a good business opportunity for them,” Dixon said from Comdex. “The tablet brings all the things that your current laptop has, but allows you to use it in new ways that you haven’t used it in before.”

He said that many people are not seeing a good reason to go out and buy a new laptop lately because improvements in speed have stopped.

“This is first and foremost a business laptop and, as far as a trade-off, there isn’t one,” he said.

Dixon’s expectation for garnering a quarter of the notebook market by 2004 is “about double” what Daoust predicts for the technology.

“We now have a very good pocket PC product, but it took them four years plus to get a really solid thing out on the field, so while this is really promising, one has to be skeptical and assume (it will take some time),” he said. “This may be a wonderful product, but it could be up to four years before it is rock solid.”

Dozens of prototype tablet PCs from various vendors are on display at Comdex. Toshiba is showing an 8-by-4-inch Tablet PC running a beta version of Windows XP Pro. 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.

While Daoust said he was comforted by seeing the likes of Toshiba, who he includes with “the gadget-masters of the planet,” he said he would feel much better if just a couple more names were added to the list.

“With Toshiba, you will unquestionably get a good product,” he said. “But the two vendors, right now, in the core PC market with momentum are Dell and IBM, so I would like to see one of those two in the market.”

However, IBM is not likely to get into the tablet market anytime soon, according to reports from the Comdex. Leo Suarez, vice-president of worldwide product marketing for personal computing devices at IBM, told sister publication InfoWorld (U.S.) that the current economic slowdown and other conditions makes the tablet “an experiment” that doesn’t fit in with IBM’s current plans.

Apparently, this experiment does fit in with Compaq’s plan, either. Ted Clark, vice-president of Compaq’s tablet PC division, said that, up until now, tablets have been vertical devices for vertical markets.

“They have served a purpose and you can think of that in the same way that early handheld devices were used,” Clark said. “We are in the early stages of the tablet project, but what Microsoft is doing is adding this user interface and data-type into the OS as a first-class citizen. They have a great recognizer, but you don’t need to recognize everything. It stays the same way your notes would stay on a piece of paper.”

By adding the rich data type to the system, Clark said that tablets will become a mainstream horizontal product for many business users.

At Comdex, Microsoft also unveiled an application called Journal that turns handwritten cursive or block letters into editable text, along with the development of other applications like Outlook extensions and Windows Messenger instant messaging programs.

“They will probably solve the handwriting recognition by consuming large amounts of storage and memory,” Daoust said. “One of the bigger problems will be storing and recognition – being able to get a system that can retrieve, recognize and manipulate it.”

A Canadian company, Mississauga, Ont.-based Xplore Technologies, is also at Comdex showcasing its rugged tablet offering, which is now being used in industries from policing and security to retail and warehouse environments.

“The tablet we are offering is a ruggedized pen tablet and it is designed for outside applications,” said Brian Groh, president of Xplore. “It’s used for any place that an actual notebook wouldn’t work.”

For more information on Mississauga-based Xplore Technologies, go to

For more information on Comdex in Las Vegas, go to

For more information on Microsoft Canada, go to

For more information on Evans Research in Toronto, go to

-With files from IDG news service