Inside Microsoft's Tablet PC

Bill Gates calls it 'one of the most amazing projects we've ever done.' Here is what is inside the company's prototype

When's the last time you took your PC out for a cup of coffee? Microsoft believes that PC users who spend even a fraction of their day away from their desks could benefit from a new PC concept called the Tablet PC.

Microsoft executives, including chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates, made the first public demonstration of the Tablet PC prototype during Gates' keynote address at Comdex 2000.

The device combined a sleek legal pad-sized form factor in a shell about 1.5 to 2in thick. The Tablet PC will offer a high-resolution touch screen good enough for reading electronic books.

While the Tablet PC's silver and red industrial design caught the attention of the keynote crowd, it was Microsoft's "electronic ink" handwriting recognition software that drew the oohs and aahs.

Bringing back the ghost of Microsoft's Windows for Pen, the electronic ink software was demonstrated performing several functions including the creation, editing, and annotation of hand-written documents using a pen.

The Tablet PC pen, much like the stylus of a PDA such as Microsoft's Pocket PC, was used to draw letters or shapes on the device's screen. However, Microsoft executives kept their Tablet PC musings to a short and sweet "wow". The rest of the text had already been entered into the device.

The editing of documents, including functions such as highlighting and deleting words or whole sentences, is possible because the software recognises individual words.

The executives also said that Microsoft would like to be able to build in features that support the ability to search hand-written notes and attach hand-written annotations to type written documents. Microsoft called this concept interactive paper.

Gates called the device, "One of the most amazing projects we've ever done."

"It's a full fledged PC. It's everything you expect in a PC, but it also has some great new features that are useful in other ways," said Burt Keely, a Microsoft executive who demonstrated the device.

The Tablet PC's hardware will be culled from the industry parts bin. It will include a low-power processor running at 500MHz to 600mhz, 128MB of RAM, 10GB hard drive, colour screen, docking cradle, universal serial bus keyboard and mouse as well as built in local area networking based on the 802.11 standard. Microsoft executives said, however, that they would like to see the device also support wide area wireless.

Also, Tablet PC will be based on Microsoft's next-generation Whistler operating system.

Assuming that Tablet PC will take off, Gates said that he sees the device as the first of a number of natural interface PCs. Another such PC, which he called Wallboard, would utilise giant touch panel LCD screen. This PC would work on the concept of "direct manipulation", where users use their fingers to click icons or drag text, he said.

The Microsoft CEO used his Comdex keynote to promote one of his biggest-ever blasts from the past: the Tablet PC -- which Charles Cooper is dubbing -- the Second Coming of the Pen PC. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

See full coverage at ZDNet UK's Comdex Fall 2000 Special Report.

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