Tablet PC: The Laptop Evolves Into a True Mobile Computer



Tablet PC prototype from Compaq Computer Corp.

LAS VEGAS, Nev., Nov. 11, 2001 — Nobody wants to carry around a desktop computer. So the laptop was created.

But there are times when a laptop is not appropriate or convenient, in a meeting, a classroom, or a courtroom. Laptops become cumbersome, if not impossible, to use effectively when away from a table or other surface on which they can rest. Keyboard tapping can be intrusive and the open-out clamshell screen can present a barrier to personal interaction.

Enter the Tablet PC, currently planned to hit store shelves in the second half of 2002. Tablet PCs will come in a variety of sizes and form factors — from clamshell laptops whose screens can pivot and lay flat to create a writing surface, to slim, slate-like devices that can use detachable or desktop keyboards and mice. But what will make all Tablet PCs unique is their integration of pen and speech input capabilities with state-of-the-art laptop capabilities. The concept has attracted a number of computer manufacturers (or OEMs, for original equipment manufacturers), including Fujitsu, Acer and Compaq, as well as software makers such as Groove Networks, and Microsoft’s own Office XP division.

“We view the Tablet PC as the next step in the evolution of the PC,” says Tom Bernhard, director of product marketing for Pen Tablets at Fujitsu. “Laptops very effectively serve people who need a computer away from their desk. But a market exists and is growing for people who need a computer when standing on their feet — a notebook (laptop) is not very useful when you’re standing up. People need a mobile product, not just a portable product.”

Microsoft will have demonstrations and prototypes of the Tablet PC during Fall COMDEX 2001, which takes place this week at the Las Vegas Convention Center, North Hall. The Tablet PC initiative also highlighted tonight’s COMDEX opening keynote by Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates, in the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

“The PC took computing out of the back office and into everyones office,”
Gates noted.
“The Tablet takes cutting-edge PC technology and makes it available wherever you want it, which is why Im already using a Tablet as my everyday computer. Its a PC that is virtually without limits – and within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America.”

Designed to Be the Primary Computer

In many ways, the OEMs and software developers partnering on the Tablet PC initiative see the product as the best of many worlds. Its form factor — roughly the size of a legal notepad and half the weight of most of todays laptop PCs — makes it a truly portable device. Because it runs a new version of Windows XP designed for the Tablet, it supports all Windows applications without modification, making it as powerful as it is portable.

Ted Clark, vice president of Tablet PC at Compaq, says this makes Tablet PC usable everywhere. “We see the Tablet PC as a business tool that lets you work the way you want to work, bringing the power of the PC anywhere you want to work,” Clark says. “This will be your primary computer — it’s not a ‘companion’ device to anything else, except a companion to you.

“It will have the capabilities and full functionality of a Windows XP notebook that you’ll be able to — and want to — carry with you everywhere. It will literally be an information tool that you don’t want to be without. We see it as the next generation of mobile computing.”

The stylus interface is nothing new — for example, Bernhard says Fujitsu has made what it calls “pen computers” for about 10 years. The Tablet PC, however, allows users to literally write on the screen in a variety of modes, capturing the “ink” as its own data type. Users can take notes using the Tablet PC’s Journal utility; write e-mail in Outlook using “ink” instead of text; annotate Word documents, PowerPoint presentations and a variety of other documents; or read electronically.

It’s Ink? Leave It as Ink

Leland Rockoff, director of marketing and business for Tablet PC at Microsoft, says that one major difference between the Tablet PC and prior stylus-based products is that the Tablet PC can serve as an unlimited source of virtual notepaper.

“We have a line that we use here, that our fundamental approach is to ‘leave ink as ink,’ ” Rockoff says. “Many prior tablet devices immediately translated what you wrote into text. Our big bet is that people will want to leave ink as ink. As they write, people do things with formatting, indents, annotations and so forth that would be extremely hard to duplicate with a text translation. Usually you need what you wrote, the way you wrote it. That’s how you make a PC capture what you have in mind. We believe we offer the industry’s best handwriting recognition software, and our software takes advantage of that in the background while a user is inking. But the Tablet PC is far more than a handwriting recognition device.”

Jim Wong, president of the IT Products Business group at Acer Inc., agrees that the Tablet PC concept will expand people’s productivity beyond just their desktop.

“The more people use a PC, the more they rely on the PC,” Wong says. “No matter where you are, you want to be as productive as you are in the office. For us, the freedom to work anywhere, anytime, made the product very convincing. Using a natural input methodology like writing, and with the plan Microsoft developed to build this kind of device, it was pretty attractive to us.”

Wong said his company is developing a laptop/Tablet PC hybrid to ease people into the Tablet concept. Initially, the device is identical to a laptop, with a fold-up screen and keyboard. But the screen rotates horizontally around a central axis where it meets the keyboard panel. When the device is closed screen side up, it can be used as a Tablet PC.

“Instead of a pure Tablet only, it can convert between a notebook and a Tablet PC,” Wong said. “Users can get used to the writing behavior by sometimes writing, sometimes typing. And it helps notebook users to get rid of their paper notebooks. It’s an evolution to a more instinctive way to use a PC.”

The Stylish Stylus

While Fujitsu also sees the Tablet PC as an “all-places, all-situations” PC, it approaches the stylus (or “pen”) interface a bit differently. Bernhard says Fujitsu believes people will accept the Tablet PC idea of the stylus as an interface. Although mainstream users may not abandon keyboards immediately, he says Fujitsu’s industrial users have accepted the stylus.

“We’ve been evangelizing and promoting this technology for a decade — it’s an integral part of our business,” Bernhard says. “People are getting more comfortable with using a pen interface. Because of that and the growth in PDA use, the Tablet as a form factor is more accessible to people now than it would have been three or four years ago.

“Customers have to feel they’re gaining functionality, not giving up functionality. They need to get functionality comparable to what they get with a notebook or their desktop PC — the Tablet PC will provide that level of performance, which is more than people need in most mobile situations.”

Clark and Compaq concur.

“We absolutely believe in a very likely scenario that elements of the Tablet form factor will eventually apply to all the notebooks in our product line,” Clark says. “We envision a day two, three or four years out when everyone will expect the notebook to have a lot of the characteristics and features of the Tablet PC.”

Software Optimized For the Tablet PC

Part of the excitement around the Tablet PC comes from the efforts of independent software vendors (ISVs) who are developing applications to take full advantage of the capabilities of the Tablet PC operating system.

Because of the Tablet PC’s mobility, software developer Groove Networks sees it as not only complementing its business model, but advancing it as well. Groove software and services allow individuals to collaborate securely with co-workers, partners, suppliers and customers, extending critical business processes, projects and meetings across organization and company boundaries.

This means people with Tablet PCs can communicate and collaborate securely and naturally with other individuals as easily as they do today via phone, fax or e-mail. Groove Networks CEO Ray Ozzie believes the more the Tablet PC enables people to extend their work or computing environment, the more beneficial they will find Groove products and services.

“The Tablet PC will extend the physical reach of Groove solutions into non-traditional, mobile work environments without compromising function,” Ozzie says. “Today, people think of using smart devices largely for gaining access to information from any time and any place. In the near future, the combination of the Tablet PC and Groove will allow people to connect with other people, quickly form ad-hoc teams, and get things done. The mobile capabilities of Groove and the Tablet PC represent another way organizations and businesses will be able to significantly reduce the cost of coordination across organization and company boundaries.”

Ozzie says that in developing its prototype application for the Tablet PC, the only challenge Groove faced was integrating the Tablet platform’s rich digital-ink capabilities. But, he says, “The application program interfaces (APIs) Microsoft exposes to do this are very straightforward.” And he calls the stylus input mode “a natural way to work.” Moreover, by utilizing the Tablet PC’s software developer kit (SDK), Ozzie said he sees the potential for developing solutions that combine Web services based on the .NET framework and peer services provided by Groove.

“We also view the Tablet PC as the evolution of the laptop,” Ozzie says. “As a result, we believe the Tablet PC will spur industry growth by advancing how people use PCs. We envision an era when people will use multiple, interchangeable intelligent computing devices to get things done. The Tablet PC should accelerate this trend and stimulate growth in the PC sector.