Tablet PC: Platform for the Next-Generation Laptop — and Beyond

ANAHEIM, Calif., March 26, 2001 — In his keynote address at the Windows Hardware and Engineering Conference (WinHEC) today, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates announced that leading companies from the computer industry have committed to work with Microsoft to develop next-generation laptop computers and peripherals based on the Microsoft Tablet PC platform. A full-power, full-feature, Windows-based computer, the Tablet PC is a new concept in mobile computing designed to take advantage of pen-based input.

Prior to WinHEC, PressPass spoke with Leland Rockoff, director of worldwide marketing and planning for the Tablet PC, about what todays announcement means for development of the Tablet PC, and what the Tablet PC might mean for computer users and the computer industry.

This Tablet PC prototype developed by Microsoft demonstrates the concept of tablet computing.

PressPass: Todays announcement seems to indicate that the Tablet PC is starting to achieve critical mass. Can you give us a better sense of what the announcement means, both in terms of industry support and on a practical level?

Rockoff: For starters, I think its a signal that the Tablet PC has a great deal of momentum within the computer industry. It is a sign that the Tablet PC has reached the point where it is far more than simply a vision that we have here at Microsoft. Today, the Tablet PC is something that the entire industry is embracing and supporting.

On a more practical level, it means that when Microsoft is ready with the software platform, the hardware platform will be there as well. Keep in mind that Microsoft wont be building Tablet PC hardware. Right now, the few prototypes that exist have been created to help developers, testers, and engineers understand how to make the Tablet PC work and how people will want to use it. But those prototypes dont necessarily resemble what will ship. As is the case with desktop and laptops PCs, Microsoft will have partners who are in the business of designing and building the hardware, and youll see as much variety and choice and innovation when the Tablet PC ships as you see today with PCs and laptops.

The bottom line? Were on track toward a 2002 launch of the Tablet PC.

PressPass: We live in a world where digital devices are becoming more and more central to our daily lives — PCs, laptops, Pocket PCs, handheld devices, Web-enabled cell phones. Where does the Tablet PC fit in? Is it meant to replace some of these devices? Or supplement them?

Rockoff: We see it quickly becoming the primary PC for business users. If youre working at your desk and like to have access to a large monitor, plus a keyboard and mouse, you can dock the Tablet PC. But when you head off to a meeting, instead of grabbing a pen and a pad of paper, youll grab your Tablet PC. During the meeting, youll be able to reference all of the relevant documents and email, and youll be able to take handwritten notes directly on the screen. Afterwards, you can quickly turn those notes into meeting minutes or action summaries or outlines, and you can easily pull that information into documents and presentations, or send it out as email. What it means is that all of a sudden, youll be able to leverage the full power of the PC to get the most value from the all of the knowledge and information you collected at the meeting, including the notes you took.

On a more fundamental level, the Tablet PC is a vital piece of our vision of the evolution of the laptop. Our aspiration is that in three to five years, input with a pen or with speech will be as ubiquitous as a keyboard and a mouse are today. When that day comes, it will mark the extension of the Windows platform to accommodate natural computing.

PressPass: What do you mean by “natural computing”?

Rockoff: In simple terms, natural computing means building the PC so that it possesses the intelligence to work the way people work. Among other things it means capturing information with ink rather than typing. It means direct manipulation of objects onscreen rather than learning commands. With natural computing, you dont have to learn how to use a PC — it just does what you want it to do in the most natural way possible. But make no mistake: This is a very ambitious vision and the Tablet PC is an important first step towards achieving it.

PressPass: So it sounds like the Tablet PC is mostly aimed at business users?

Rockoff: Actually, the Tablet PC is a very broad platform. We think anyone who uses both a desktop PC and pad of paper during the course of their working day will be glad have one. That includes a lot of people. Think of students — who takes more notes and is more pen-and-paper intensive than a college student? But we believe the Tablet PC will be especially useful for business people. Anyone who spends a lot of time away from their desk attending meetings will see important efficiency gains.

PressPass: During the 1990s, a number of companies — including Microsoft — invested heavily in unsuccessful attempts to develop pen-based computers similar to the Tablet PC. What makes you believe that the Tablet PC will be successful?

Rockoff: First and foremost, the technology is ready now, everything from lower-power CPUs to longer-life batteries to higher-resolution displays. If you look at the earlier attempts to create pen-based computers, they tended to require technology that just didnt exist at the time. Our version is built entirely on technologies that will already be mainstream when we ship.

Theres also an important difference in the underlying approach were taking. Earlier pen-based computers were based on achieving perfect handwriting recognition. Our handwriting recognition is strictly state of the art, but were not hanging our hat on the fidelity of handwriting recognition. As impressive as the handwriting recognition capability of the Tablet PC is — and it is the best on the market — the fact is that it just wont work for everybody. Weve designed it so that even if it doesnt work for you, youll still enjoy get great benefits from a Tablet PC.

Heres an example. When I go to a meeting and take notes, I dont rush back and immediately type them up and format them into a nice Word document. The reason I dont is because they are very useful to me as ink. I refer to them and use them as is. Similarly, when I annotate something, or take notes, or make circles and arrows, its useful in that form. With the Tablet PC, I can do that with anything and share it with anyone. Plus I can search it, manipulate it, and do a lot of other great things with it and it doesnt need to be transformed into data. On that fundamental level, it’s incredibly useful.

The critical thing for the Tablet PC is that it goes way beyond just converting ink to data. Our approach is to make ink a first-class citizen. Its not just about recognizing ink, but incorporating handwriting and ink into your daily work. Our goal is that over time, all applications will accept ink so that you will be able to use a pen to annotate and edit and lay ink on top of virtually everything you do on a computer.

PressPass: Every major leap forward in digital technology comes with new buzzwords. When people at Microsoft talk about the Tablet PC, one phrase that comes up a lot is “rich digital ink.” Could you explain?

Rockoff: Okay. Rich digital ink. What that means is that were building services into Windows that will allow independent software vendors to add the ability to recognize and utilize ink directly into their applications. It also refers to our fundamental approach to ink. We capture it at a very high sampling rate: 133 per second — four times the sampling rate for the mouse. The result is that what you lay down doesnt look like segmented lines. Instead, it looks exactly like what you lay down on a paper with a pen. On top of that, we use the technology to smooth the ink. Weve developed advanced algorithms that actually can make it look better than what you actually laid down on screen in the first place.

PressPass: Todays announcement signals strong support for the Tablet PC within the computer industry. What will the Tablet PC mean for the industry at large?

Rockoff: From the perspective of the hardware industry, theres just a huge potential here. The Tablet PC provides a fantastic opportunity to make the PC more alive and more useful for more hours during the day. We believe the Tablet PC will make computers even more relevant to peoples day-to-day lives than they are today. One thing that means is a chance to achieve new penetration among people who dont use a PC today. In addition, theres the opportunity to develop and sell an array of new peripherals that arent part of the mainstream market today.

On the software end, the Tablet PC will open up avenues for building in new features and new functionality, and we expect to see a whole new generation of innovation in software development that will bring new excitement to the market.

PressPass: Todays announcement focuses on hardware makers, but a lot of work is required to adapt software to the Tablet PC as well. What is being done on the application development end to make the Tablet PC a reality?

Rockoff: Were at a stage of development where the architecture and platform are becoming finalized, and were starting to work closely with the independent software development community so that when the Tablet PC ships, anyone who wants to build applications that take advantage its capabilities will have everything they need to adapt their products, or develop entirely new ones. You can expect to see the Tablet PC become an important part of all of the major outreach events that Microsoft offers to software developers. On top of that, were planning a major technical day focused solely on the Tablet PC. That event will take place in a couple months and it will give developers the detailed technical information they need to help them begin to think about how they might adapt their applications to work with the Tablet PC, and how they might take advantage of it to add compelling new functionality to their products.

PressPass: What is it like to use a Tablet PC?

Rockoff: When Im working face-to-face with other people, its great. The fact is that if you are in a meeting, working on a laptop is kind of rude — the keyboard is noisy, the fan is obvious, and you end up spending more time looking at the screen than at the people you are meeting with. Theres something our researchers call “high cognitive load,” which has to do with the distraction inherent in all of the things that you have to pay attention to when you use a PC. Where do I put the cursor? What font am I in? Is this formatted right? Are my fingers in the right place on the keyboard and am I spelling everything accurately enough so that Ill know what I meant later? All these things limit the utility of the PC in its present form.

With the Tablet PC, its exactly the same as taking notes on a pad of paper and Im free to focus all my attention on whats going on in the conversation rather than whats happening onscreen. Most of the time when I use a Tablet PC in a meeting, its so unobtrusive that the other people dont know that Im using a computer at all. It sits in my lap and I scribble away, just like if I had a pad of paper. Theres nothing at all rude or obnoxious or distracting about it.

PressPass: So have you moved over entirely to the Tablet PC and given up your desktop model?

Rockoff: Unfortunately, its not my primary PC yet. We only have a limited number and I still have to share it with other people. But when I do get a chance to use one, it is really hard to part with it. At the moment, the real limit comes from the fact that we just get so many requests from senior executives who want to use one. Theres definitely a lot of excitement here about the Tablet PC right now, and a lot of jockeying for position to be able to use one. As soon as we have enough so that I can use one all the time, I will definitely make it my primary machine. Personally, I cant wait.

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