Transmeta on Monday announced a joint effort to produce a number of development-stage Microsoft Tablet PC machines that will be widely distributed.
These development systems -- of which there will be several hundred, according to David Ditzel, Transmeta's chief technology officer -- are the next step in the development of the Tablet PC. Tablet PC is a notebook PC-based computer designed to let PC users interact with a computer in a more natural way. At the same time, it will remain connected to the Internet or the office network, even if the user is moving down the hall to a meeting room or the cafe.
Tablet PC packs a new pen-based user interface, along with handwriting-recognition software into a portable form factor. When not being toted around, the device rests in a cradle on the user's desk and connects to a full-size keyboard and mouse.
Transmeta will provide its 600MHz Crusoe TM5600 processor and LongRun power-management software for the development systems. It will assist Microsoft with tweaks to the Tablet PC's Windows XP operating system.
PDAs (personal digital assistants), many of which are similar in form to Tablet PC, have made new and simpler interfaces, including pen-based input, more popular and more acceptable to consumers.
"I think that is what Microsoft is heading toward, but whether this is going to be that big jump is another story," said Alan Promisel, an analyst at IDC. It remains to be seen if Tablet PC will be more successful than Microsoft's previous efforts, such as its failed Windows for Pen software.
"It has that big 'ooh, ah' factor, but people want something they're familiar with, which is the keyboard," Promisel said.
The success of Tablet PC could certainly help Transmeta. However, despite providing the processor for the demo units, Transmeta is not claiming to be the exclusive source of processors for Tablet PC.
Ditzel exudes confidence that his company's chip is the right choice, among several. Crusoe, he said, is the only chip "that could give [Microsoft] the long battery life and the performance" needed for the Tablet PC.
"We're not going to say Crusoe is the only processor that will be in [the tablet PC]," he said. However, "Crusoe is in there" now and thus has the advantage of incumbency, he said.
While Microsoft is choosing to build its own demonstration systems, it will leave it up to PC makers to build final versions of the Tablet PC.
Microsoft will instead provide the operating system, the user interface and such applications as its electronic ink software. The application, as demonstrated by Microsoft, allows system users to create, edit and annotate Word documents using a pen.
Microsoft will also likely provide a hardware reference specification for Tablet PC, if the company follows the path it has set with other devices, such as its Windows CE-based PocketPC devices. That specification, however, will likely call only for an X86 chip. Pocket PCs can use MIPS, StrongARM and Hitachi SH-series processors, among others.
Individual device manufacturers would be able to choose from several processors offered by chipmakers Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, Via Technologies or even National Semiconductor.
However, Transmeta's work to help perfect the operating system for things such as power management might give it the inside edge.
"We've got a great relationship with Microsoft. This is just more evidence of it," Ditzel said.
Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, first publicly demonstrated Tablet PC during his opening keynote address at Comdex/Fall last November. At the time, he called Tablet "one of the most amazing projects we've ever done".
The development versions of the Tablet PCs will likely follow a hardware outline given at Comdex. Aside from the Transmeta chips, they will likely include 128MB of RAM, a 10GB hard drive, a docking cradle, a USB (universal serial bus) keyboard and mouse, along with built-in local-area networking based on the 802.11.
Overall, the device will be about the width and length of a legal-size pad of paper, measure between 1.5in and 2in thick, and provide a colour touch screen with a resolution sharp enough to allow people to read electronic books.
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