Q&A: Inside the Next Version of the Tablet PC Operating System



Bill Mitchell, Corporate Vice President, Tablet PC and Smart Personal Objects Technology. Click image for high-res version.

REDMOND, Wash., Nov. 17, 2003 One year after Microsoft launched the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates announced an interim edition of the operating system at COMDEX 2003.

To get a glimpse into how the Microsoft Tablet PC Edition 2004 differs from the original version, and for an update on the Tablet PC at its first anniversary, PressPass spoke with Bill Mitchell , corporate vice president of the Tablet PC and Smart Personal Objects Technology at Microsoft .

PressPass: What sort of feedback has Microsoft received from industry partners and customers about the Tablet PC in its first year?

Mitchell: We just completed a tour with a broad range of IT influentials. Our intention was to solicit feedback on the 2004 alpha version coupled with the additional inking functionality built into the new release of Microsoft Office 2003. We also aimed to showcase the diverse collection of new Tablet PC designs, and contrast them to what was available a year ago. And though the Tablet PC initiative has passed many milestones in its first year, and delivered the solutions our customer and partners wanted, the Tablet PC experience has improved considerably for example, through improvements in key
“ink-to-text”
scenarios. So, the reaction was very positive.

We’ve been working very closely with our enterprise customers over the past year, getting their reactions and using their feedback to influence some of the features in the new release of the beta operating system (OS). They’ve provided us very good feedback and are happy with the direction we are moving.

We actively monitor large enterprises as they continue their Tablet PC pilot programs. And although it’s not unusual for enterprises to evaluate new technologies such as the Tablet PC for months, a number of these enterprises are actually moving ahead with their pilots and deployments.

The excitement and momentum among the developer community continues to grow. Last month, at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles, we launched a contest for developers worldwide to develop a power toy to be used on the Tablet PC and submit it to Microsoft. The prize is US$15,000, and the deadline is Jan. 31, 2004. We expect the contest to generate some really interesting applications that will show off how the Tablet PC platform is a hotbed of innovation. To date, we’ve recognized roughly 120 Tablet PC applications, which is intriguing. As independent software vendors (ISVs) continue to innovate, new applications will strengthen the appeal of the Tablet PC platform and improve end-user productivity in the enterprise.

Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are another important aspect of the Tablet PC initiative. There are currently 18 machines shipping today, and we expect that number to grow. On top of OEM and ISV momentum, we’re also seeing enthusiastic Tablet PC users host Web sites dedicated to Tablet and the Tablet PC community, such as www.tabletpc2.com , www.tabletpctalk.com and www.tabletpcbuzz.com . These sites host lively discussions about unique uses of the technology and are forums for users to share their interest for the Tablet PC.

PressPass: What are the primary enhancements offered in Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2004?

Mitchell: Our goal was, first of all, to improve the Tablet PC experience by making the pen a mainstream input device, on par with the keyboard and mouse. This is not only about the way in which the pen is used to insert text although there are certainly a number of improvements there but also about inking across the operating system and across Windows applications. So our goal was to make pen-based input be a standard part of the way you use your mobile PC.

In addition, Microsoft shipped the new Microsoft Office System, including Microsoft OneNote, which enables users to annotate anywhere in Word, Excel or PowerPoint documents, and send handwritten e-mails. OneNote on the Tablet PC brings together ink, text and Web content in one application.

There’s also new support for ISV applications that takes the form of some controls and APIs (application program interfaces) that allow ink functionality, for instance, to enable the user to ink on top of certain Web pages.

So there are a range of scenarios that really benefit from all three improvements that you see this year, improvements to the base operating system through the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2004 release, and then the advantages that Office 2003 and ISV applications take of the operating-system features. Together with the improvements to the hardware itself, we believe that the Tablet PC is more than ever poised to be the next mainstream mobile PC.

PressPass: From the perspective of an end-user, how is the Tablet PC experience of a year ago different from the experience today?

Mitchell: The first thing that all users will see is the deeper support for pen input across the entire operating system and in all Windows-based applications. Regardless of whether they have a convertible, slate or hybrid Tablet PC, users can now more easily insert text with a pen. If they are on a slate and they tend to spend more time with recognition, we have brought a new level of handwriting-recognition intelligence to the Tablet PC operating system. For instance, we use context to more accurately understand what is being written. It’s much like we use context when we’re talking to each other to disambiguate what we mean when we use, for instance, acronyms like “PC.” Does that mean “personal computer” or “politically correct?” When a user enters an Internet address via a pen, the software interprets the context and recognizes it as an Internet address. This makes for a more efficient and natural end-user experience.

So the improvements in ink and handwriting recognition are probably the two biggest benefits. If your language is East Asian and you write using characters, we think you’ll see dramatic improvements in the user interface as well, mostly again for entering text. It’s cumbersome to type many Asian languages, so improving the way those customers can use digital ink is a significant improvement. And across the board, you’ll see the benefits poking through to all Windows-based applications where some of the low-level operating system functionality is used.

PressPass: How are OEMs using the Tablet PC platform to reach wider audiences?

Mitchell: We have many OEMs shipping a diverse collection of designs in the form of slates, convertibles and hybrids. The form factor of a Tablet PC allows enterprises to explore new scenarios. For example, a field insurance worker can use the combination of pen and voice capabilities during a site visit to photograph problematic areas, record data and report to their client instantaneously. In the healthcare field, the old way for physicians to make patient rounds was to go into a physician lounge area and pull up the census, then print out a hard copy to carry with them. With the Tablet PC, real-time patient and clinical information is available electronically, and physicians have instant access to chart information. In the financial industry, we’re seeing companies moving from paper-based to electronic solutions via a Tablet PC. For example, with bank loan applications, customers can fill out forms on a Tablet PC and submit them directly into the database for same-day processing.

There is also a range of very mainstream hardware platforms now hitting the market, some of which in fact don’t even rotate into a Tablet mode. They are conventional clamshell designs, such as the Acer TravelMate 250PE, blurring the line between the traditional portable PC and the Tablet PC. These are all designed to reach different customer segments, from mainstream $1,400, 14-inch machines to others that retail all the way to the specialized vertical channels.

The improvements in designs coupled with the big three improvements that we’re seeing in the hardware, and then the docking solutions docking stations and port replicators all dramatically improve the reach of the platforms and their ability to be used in very mainstream scenarios. We are even more excited about the next-generation designs. Our OEM partners are developing all sorts of large and small form factors, with all sorts of advances in multimedia; better battery life some eight-plus-hour battery life; reduced weight; and additional solutions to allow you to use PIM (personal information management) information instantly without fully booting your PC.

PressPass: What are the enhanced benefits of Office 2003 and OneNote via a Tablet PC, and what does this mean for users?

Mitchell: Let’s start with the ink note-taking experience. I already talked about this, but note taking in OneNote offers a lot of added functionality for users. Journal, which comes with Windows XP Tablet PC edition, is a very bread-and-butter inking utility that provides support for just ink as a data type and doesn’t allow you to mix structured input for instance, the use of bullets. Now, with the addition of the new OneNote, users are able to use the application as a much more productive note-taking scenario. Users can organize their notes into notebooks, reference across these notebooks, record voice, and have text comments that they can cut and paste across other Office applications. So it becomes a much more full-featured note-taking application.

In Word, Excel and PowerPoint, being able to use ink everywhere as an annotation device is a beautiful thing, particularly in Excel, circling specific areas of a spreadsheet and having that ink stay with the cell, or in Word, marking up documents. Again, you could do that through the Office XP add-on pack that was available for the first version of the operating system. But the support was somewhat limited, and you ended up having to export those Office XP documents into a format that was understood in Journal, and the document becomes sort of frozen at that point. So there are dramatic improvements in annotation.

The third area the one that I actually think is the most exciting is the improvement in the holistic e-mail experience. Today, using a pen and Office 2003 on a Tablet PC, and using a feature called
“most recently used (MRU) lists,”
you’re able to very quickly pick an e-mail recipient. If the recipient that you want to target isn’t on the MRU list, you can much more accurately enter that person’s name or e-mail address, and then when you’re ready to enter body text, you can either use the Tablet input panel or ink right in place. And both of them are much more convenient than they had been in the past, so the holistic ink e-mail experience is actually much better. The Tablet PC input panel, by virtue of the recognition improvements, is actually substantially improved as well.

PressPass: What is Microsoft’s vision for Tablet PC in the next year and beyond?

Mitchell: Microsoft’s goal is that, within five years, most mobile PCs will have Tablet PC functionality, such as the digitizer and the pen input. We’re working to make that the case sooner than five years. We believe that pen-based input is a very natural experience, and coupled with these new innovations, users will adapt to it very easily. We’re also working closely with hardware partners to help ensure the pen and ink experience translates well to different devices, and to develop cost-effective improvements to the performance, such as reducing things like glare and making the pen feel more natural.

At the same time, we’re working on reducing cost differences between a Tablet PC and a comparable laptop the Tablet with overlay and inking support and pen input, versus a conventional laptop that’s otherwise equivalent. Once we get to that point, the dramatic improvements in productivity and in potential scenarios that Tablet PCs are uniquely suited to support should tilt the balance in favor of Tablet PCs versus conventional notebooks. We already feel like we’ve got a lot of the building blocks in place to prove out that value proposition with Office 2003 and the upcoming release some time in the first half of 2004 of Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2004.