New PCs: think ink

Microsoft Corp. envisions a mobile computer that will boldly go where no PC has ever gone before – at least not without considerable difficulty.

Bill Gates, Microsoft Corp. chairman and chief software architect, waited until about halfway through his keynote address at last month’s Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) before introducing Microsoft’s Tablet PC initiative. Attendees at the Anaheim, Calif.-based conference visibly perked up at the mention of what Gates referred to as an “evolution of the portable PC form factor.”

The prototype tablet-based PC that Gates demonstrated was the size of a large notepad, weighed about two pounds, and called to mind the well-known child’s Etch A Sketch toy. Microsoft representatives stressed, however, that the form-factors and pricing of the final products would be up to the individual OEMs who release them to market, which is targeted for the end of next year. Already, five major vendors and two processor companies have signed on to develop the systems.

“It’s revolutionary because of your ability to take it in your hands, sit there and read and annotate, take notes, things that were not possible before,” Gates said.

Gates announced partnerships with Compaq Computer Corp., Acer Corp., Fujitsu Ltd., Sony Corp. and Toshiba Corp. Microsoft will also work with both Intel Corp. and Transmeta Corp. to develop low-power, battery-friendly processors for the devices.

The selling point heard repeatedly throughout the demonstrations was that the Tablet PC will combine the simplicity of paper with the power of a fully-functional PC. The tablets will feature a touchscreen interface, a special hardware pen and new handwriting recognition software from Microsoft called MS Notebook, which will save hand-written scribbles as is, translate them into actual text, and even allow editing within a hand-written document.

The hardware pen Gates demonstrated worked at the rate of 133 samples per second, as opposed to the 30 or 40 samples per second for a typical mouse, and turned poly-lines into bezier curves and provided anti-aliasing for a more natural hand-written look. When the demonstration showed how the “digital ink” could be edited, manipulated and searched in the same way text is edited on screen today, the audience burst into applause.

Catchy unit

The form-factor will catch on across many audiences, predicted Alexandra Loeb, general manager of Microsoft’s Tablet PC effort, at a later session.

“You can see how addictive this can be,” she said, waving the unit at the rapt audience. Loeb said she felt a little like a second grade teacher when drilling home facts about the new PCs. “Now repeat after me: ‘It’s a full-powered PC.’ You’ll hear me repeat myself, because apparently, it’s necessary. People believe if it’s natural to use then it’s not powerful.”

In fact, the computer was met with scepticism by some attendees, many who claimed this is not actually a new idea and hasn’t worked well in the past.

“I was joking around with some of the other old-timers, because God knows how many WinHECs I’ve been to, about ‘How are they going to build it when AT&T’s not making the Hobbit anymore?’ That’s in reference to the Hobbit processor that was used for Tablet PCs way back in 1993. So this is far from being a new concept,” said Dean McCarron, a principal at Mercury Research Inc. in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“That said, it looks like the things [Microsoft] has done are a lot more refined. Some of the demos for example – storing handwriting as handwriting and being able to cut and paste it as text in an application -were pretty cool. So if they can actually implement it, if it actually happens and it’s not broken the way it was eight years ago, then maybe there’s a market for it,” he said.

“It’s very interesting but I think it’s also earned a level of scepticism based on [the fact that] it’s been tried before.”

Each tablet will run the upcoming Microsoft XP operating system, the Beta 2 version of which was announced at the conference. Windows XP is “the most important release of Windows since Windows 95,” Gates said.

“Windows XP represents the realization of a dream that Microsoft has had for a long time, and that is to take the very rich and powerful code base that we’ve built around Windows NT and have that become the code base for the entire PC marketplace, for the consumer marketplace, for the business marketplace, for the server marketplace,” Gates explained.

This feature will be a “really big help to everybody,” McCarron said.

“It’s a pain to be maintaining multiple driver versions. It’s a big resource strain. To give you an idea, for a lot of hardware vendors, about a third of their development dollars are going into software. Things are more supportable, things are more reliable, when you are working on thing to make it work, rather than working on three different things that all do the same thing.”