Tablet PCs on slow dissolve

Despite brave words, the figures show Tablet PCs failing to sparkle. Mixing with the mainstream may be their only hope.

Dell threw its annual shindig for the European press last week, taking over a hotel in Cannes for two days of product previews, executive briefing and general schmoozing. Some of what the company said was public straight away, some of the forthcoming product launches are being kept for later. The company's plans for the next few months were sketched out, to varying levels of detail and secrecy. But you can't keep people quiet about stuff you don't talk about -- and Dell had absolutely nothing to say, on or off the record, about Tablet PCs.

It's not alone in its reticence. Acer, one of Microsoft's staunchest allies in the great tablet adventure, has gone on record as saying that the format has been consistently disappointing. The company had hoped that by the end of last year, 20 percent of its notebook sales would be swallowed up by Tablet PCs. As of this month, it's still less than 10 percent. The product has been selling well into vertical markets -- doctors, warehouse controllers, maintenance engineers -- but not very well into corporates and not at all to consumers.

Ah, say the Tablet PC diehards. That's because the extra circuitry to do the pen-sensitive screen costs a lot, and when it's cheaper the advantages of pen computing will make the product unbeatable. Yet even here the signs aren't encouraging. One of the most exciting products at the recent CeBIT show in the US was the OQO -- a full XP computer that's not much bigger than the chunkier breed of PDA. This is an expensive yet very attractive device that has all the attributes of a laptop in a much smaller box, and also includes a pen and a pen-sensitive screen. Yet the manufacturers have chosen to use plain XP, almost as if calling it a tablet would be a poison pill.

The fact is that the effect of Tablet PC extensions on ordinary notebook technology is pretty similar to that of an effervescent vitamin pill on a glass of water. Wait for the fizz to die down, and you're left with a glass of water. True, it might taste a bit funny. It may or may not be good for you in some circumstances. Mostly, though, it's still a glass of water.

Those who've actually used Tablet PCs are enthusiastic. There are many classes of consumer who aren't at ease with keyboards, and the Tablet PC's handwriting recognition is good enough to keep them happy. The next generation of operating system extensions will be even easier to use -- when Microsoft manages to ship them: the company's seeming inability to produce new software has spilled over into Lonestar, the long-promised update. And nobody doubts that the ideal domestic tablet that's slim, light, long-lived, cheap and delivers high quality media over wireless networking will walk off the shelves.

At that point, though, the rest of the market will have moved on. The confusion between tablet and notebook forms hasn't been helped by the popularity -- relatively speaking -- of convertibles, which are notebooks with pen-sensitive screens that can be used in tablet form. When proper low-power wireless networking for peripherals becomes standard, as it will once UWB or Zigbee companies decide to make money instead of enemies, the confusion will be complete. Is a Tablet PC with a fully detachable wireless keyboard a true tablet? A convertible? A notebook? Does it matter?

When the technology for pen-sensitive screens becomes cheap enough, it will be adopted by everyone -- and why not. At that point, Microsoft will stop maintaining the Tablet PC operating system as a separate brand and just subsume the pen and digital ink stuff into the mainstream OS. It's what it's done in the past: Windows for Workgroups introduced networking as a special, differentiated market, fell flat on its back and was assimilated into the amoeba thereafter.

That'll be tough on all those people who've invested time, energy and money on the promise that the Tablet PC format was really new, unique and different. When the technology is ready to invade new niches, it'll be obvious -- and it won't depend on press releases and sustained bluster. Until that point, the best fate for the ill-starred Tablet PC is to gently dissolve into the world of notebooks. Anything else has proved too hard to swallow.