Comment: Give Tablet PCs more time

There are reasons to look at the whole tablet PC phenomenon and see doom and gloom. Since the launch, we haven't seen many new machines.

I recently found myself in a Monty Python-like debate with a friend over whether Microsoft's Tablet PC is dead or simply "pining for the fjords." My take: The tablet PC is just catching its breath.

Sure, there are reasons to look at the whole tablet PC phenomenon and see doom and gloom. Since the initial flurry last November, we haven't seen many new machines running Microsoft's specialized operating system. Flying on business, you're not very likely to see any of your fellow passengers scribbling wildly on a tablet.

Still, four months after their introduction, tablets are doing just fine. The top two notebooks on ZDNet Reviews's list of best ultraportables--the Toshiba Portege Tablet 3505 and the Fujitsu PC Stylistic ST4000 Tablet PC--just happen to be tablets. The consensus among our reviewers is that the two machines would be great portables with or without the pen input. The tablet PC capabilities are just icing on two already very tasty cakes.

Even though you might not see lots of folks using tablets (yet), they're selling well. Vendors say the first models sold better than expected. Analysts at market researcher IDC say their surveys back up those claims.

As best I can tell, the people who are buying the current crop of tablets seem mostly to already have pen-based applications and to be looking for replacement hardware. Microsoft is making inroads into the vertical markets where tablets are already in use. Forms-based applications that don't require much free-form data input, relying instead on buttons and checklists, already work well with tablet PCs. So do apps like medical charting, where the digital ink doesn't require conversion into text.

For the rest of us, it's probably best to avoid tablets until the second and third generation machines are well-established in the market. I mean, I like tablet PCs, but I can't really think of a reason to buy one now, especially for any kind of a price premium over a standard notebook. But I expect that to change.

Seeking a broader audience, Microsoft is due to begin beta-testing OneNote, a note-taking application that's slated to become part of the Microsoft Office family. OneNote is a less-structured data entry tool than a word processor, using tabs to help users find the specific note they are looking for.

Although OneNote doesn't require a tablet PC, it does a nice job of organizing handwritten notes and drawings, integrating them with keyboard-based documents. On other fronts, Microsoft is working to improve support for digital ink across its product line, something that should become apparent when Office 11 ships later this year.

Office 11 will also provide a number of new collaboration features, many of them well-suited to pen-based users. Document markup, something pen computers already do very well, becomes much more valuable when documents can be easily shared among members of a workgroup. Collaboration and communication are two areas where tablet PCs will eventually shine.

Still, for tablet PCs to become ubiquitous, a few things need to happen. For one thing, the price of digitizers (the hardware that translates onscreen scrawls into digital signals) needs to come down to the point where adding pen entry to a laptop doesn't also add to the cost of the finished product. That may take three or four years.

Tablet PCs will also benefit from increased adoption of wireless LANs, both inside corporate offices and as hot spots for travelers. Quick startup times will be a big help, since computer tablets are competing with zero-boot-up paper tablets. Getting rid of the wait will be a big win.

Longer battery life, perhaps in the form of fuel cells capable of running a notebook for two days on a half-jigger of alcohol-based fuel, will also boost adoption of pen-based systems (along with other portable devices).

All this--collaboration, cheap digitizers, fuel cells--could come together in the 2005 to 2007 timeframe. Analysts tell me there's every reason to believe that, in five years, it will be hard to find a notebook that doesn't support pen entry. So I don't think we'll be talking about the death of the tablet PC. If anything joins the choir invisibile, it will be portables that aren't tablet-enabled.