commentary This week Microsoft has been giving journalists hands-on experience with its latest vision: the Tablet PC, which is to launch on 7 November.
The Tablet is Microsoft's hybrid laptop/PDA that's supposed to combine the full power of the Windows environment with the nifty ability to let you input text using a Palm-style stylus. It can even recognize doctors' hand-writing and turn it into editable text. Or so we're told...
At first glance the unit itself looks like a normal laptop. The one we were shown was an Acer machine running Windows XP Tablet Edition.
This is the Convertible model, as opposed to the Slate, which is the "pure" Tablet--no keyboard, just a square screen and button-laden surround. The Slate is the thinnest and lightest, but is also the one that cautious spenders may think is too much of a leap into the unknown. It may have some obvious vertical market applications, but is unlikely to shift serious units elsewhere.
The Convertible is perhaps the most practical model for early adopters--and the one Microsoft expects to ship more of. In simple spec terms, think top-notch, 802.11 and Bluetooth-enabled laptop and you won't be too far wrong of the models available at launch, but it also has the added bonus of a swivel-and-fold conversion into the tablet format, which will rest neatly in a crooked arm, clipboard style.
If you're into board room status symbols, the unit will certainly turn heads in meetings.
Re-inventing pen and paper?
But as the meeting progresses you may become aware of some sniggering.
After all, there you are, using your stylus, writing on the screen of your Tablet--next to somebody using a pen, writing on a pad of paper. All of a sudden you realize the person next to you is still going to get from A to B--just in less high-tech--and less expensive--style.
So has Microsoft invested millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours just to re-invent paper? There comes a point about five minutes into the demo when you think this may in fact be the case.
The Tablet is the first fruit of Bill Gates' more hands-on role in Microsoft (he stepped down as chief executive in 2000 to spend more time on product development) and you can almost picture the meeting in which panicky Microsoft execs awkwardly scooped their pens and paper under the table and nodded affirmatively in Bill's direction as he told them how the Tablet would transform their working lives.
And let's face it--it's a brave exec who tells the world's richest man that he's just stumbled upon a concept which the Egyptians hit upon several thousands of years previously (not forgetting God, who released his own Tablet--storage capacity approx. 10 short-to-medium length commandments--around 1300 BC).
On the one hand it is certainly true that the Tablet is little more than a glorified ring-bound notepad. The Journal software, complete with narrow ruled lines, red margin down the left of the page and stylus-enabled handwriting recognition, makes the point shamelessly explicit.
But the advantage to the early adopting office user is brought through the Windows OS side of things.
Most of us have desks littered with notepads, post-it notes and assorted scribbled names and phone numbers written on everything from a Starbucks serviette to the bottom of a bank statement. At its most simplistic level the Tablet brings order to such scribblings--treat Journal documents like random scraps of paper but then file them orderly in folders, as you would now with Word documents.
Similarly, while you might know there's a scrap of paper on your desk with John Smith's phone number on it, it will doubtless be quicker to type "John Smith" in the "find" function on the Tablet, which recognizes words written freehand within documents.
Portability of this information is also a massive bonus to the demographic Microsoft cringingly refers to as the "Corridor Warriors". Even if you don't want to put the Tablet through its paces, a cursory exploration of its uses shows it is the ultimate personal organizer.
Microsoft Journal has clearly been created with the Tablet in mind, but the revolutionary unit is far from a one-trick pony. Early adopters developing stylus-enabled software for the platform include Adobe, Corel, Groove and SAP.
Of course other Office apps, such as Outlook, Excel, PowerPoint and Word can also be Tablet-enabled and the benefits are manifold.
For example, you can annotate PowerPoint slides during a live presentation as easily as drawing on an old-style overhead projector acetate sheet. Ever been to a meeting, taken written notes, gone back to your desk, typed them in and then emailed them to colleagues? All that can be done with one handy Tablet.
Using the stylus, you can enter numbers directly onto an Excel spreadsheet, and the handwriting recognition software turns them into type for you--useful if you are on the move in a warehouse or stock room.
While numbers appeared to throw up little difficulty for the Tablet, words proved more problematic. Microsoft is keen to stress the handwriting recognition is not the feature it is betting its house on, but it would still be nice to see it sing. Writing in Word produced some questionable interpretations to say the least, though I confess to having handwriting a dyslexic doctor would be proud off.
And what of our handwriting-challenged doctors?
With high hopes of demand for Tablet's (no pun intended) from the NHS, Microsoft included doctors in the testing stages of its handwriting recognition development program, figuring that if the software can decipher their scrawl it shouldn't even break techno-sweat when it comes to reading the hand of your average Joe. And while Microsoft remains adamant that this unit will find a home in all manner of industries, it does seem perfect for healthcare.
Replacing the clipboard and eliminating the need to run manila folders up and down stairs from ward to ward and from desk to department the Tablet could streamline a hospital in a stroke.
For example, everything a triage nurse writes on her Tablet will be viewable in an instant by nurses, consultants and surgeons anywhere on a wireless network. Phrases such as, "We're just waiting for your results to come down from x-ray" will become a thing of the past.
The price issue
However, phrases like "It costs how much?" may still hinder the roll out across a cash-strapped health service--the units, at best, will come in at the top end of the laptop scale, though actual pricing has yet been announced. Rationalizing financial outlay in terms of human resources savings may be an issue for heated debate in the months to come.
Other areas where Microsoft believes it will find a market for the tablet include construction and education, though the latter is again subject to tight budget controls.
However, the oft-bullish software giant is making no bold predictions about the size of the market. A few contracts with bulk buyers, which are in the pipeline, will help boost initial sales figures, but the long-term planners at Gates Towers accept this is going to be a slow-burner.
Asking for actual figures fell on deaf ears, but the in-house predictions are apparently all very modest--partly because existing technologies, such as Palm PDAs, still offer a usable solution to many of the Tablet's target users.
However the Convertible model's ability to morph into a laptop means when palmtop/laptop users come to update one or the other, they may opt for the more all encompassing Tablet--though it's not a unit you could easily slip into a top pocket.
Acer, Compaq, Fujitsu, NEC, Time and Toshiba are among the companies signed up to produce the Tablet PCs. Dell, IBM and Sony are among the notable absentees either adopting a waiting brief or keeping their distance altogether. If there is a risk of failure for Microsoft then it lies with the Slate format--users may never come to terms with the idea of ditching a keyboard altogether.