Chairman William H. Gates III introduced the Tablet PC on Nov. 7, he declared it the future of computing.
The Tablet PC is a mobile computer a bit smaller than a notebook personal computer. Its distinguishing feature is a screen that you can write on with a stylus like a personal digital assistant, or PDA.
As Windows-driven devices, Tablet PCs are incompatible with
s Macintosh except for the limited file-sharing capabilities the Mac already has with Windows.
And while Gates may think the Tablet PC will set the standard for the future, a host of drawbacks most likely will prevent the computer from posing a significant threat to Mac's platform any time soon.
Several hardware vendors -- including Acer Inc.,
-- have announced variations of the Tablet PC, costing from $1,699 to $2,499. Most models include a keyboard that either swivels or detaches -- though some, like the Fujitsu ST4000, are just an electronic slate.
Brett Miller, an analyst with A.G. Edwards & Sons Inc. in St. Louis who covers the computer industry, thinks the Tablet PCs steep price will limit its initial appeal.
"For $1,000, you can get a nice laptop," Miller said. "Why pay more for a tablet?" He noted that you can add a PDA to the mix and still spend less than you would on a Tablet PC.
All the Tablet PCs use a version of Microsofts Windows XP operating system designed for "pen computing." This special version of Windows has additional software that enables a user to enter written notes or drawings into programs with a stylus on the screen.
Because its otherwise a standard version of XP, users also can run any regular Windows program on a Tablet PC.
But try as Microsoft might to pitch the Tablet PC as an entirely new device, its essentially a notebook PC with pen-based input capabilities, which places it in an arena of computing littered with spectacular failures, most memorably Apples Newton.
Products that incorporate some form of "pen computing" date back nearly 10 years. Apple started the race for a small, stylus-operated hand-held computer in early 1992, when it said that it was working on such a device.
That was more than a year before the Newton was introduced.
Having foolishly alerted its competitors, Apple cut corners on the Newtons development to get the product on the market. So when the Newton was launched in August 1993, its handwriting recognition had serious problems -- converting many words to gibberish.
Worse, Apples marketing department had hyped the feature, creating unrealistic expectations. The Newton, as a result, became the butt of jokes -- including an obvious slap from the comic strip "Doonesbury" -- rather than the technological triumph it was touted to be.
Newtons handwriting recognition vastly improved in late 1995, with a major upgrade to its software -- but by then, the damage had been done.
Apple CEO Steve Jobs killed the money-losing Newton in February 1998, ostensibly to refocus the then-struggling company solely on the Mac.
Newtons failure has haunted pen-based computing ever since, with no one having completely tamed the handwriting-recognition beast.
Palms more simplified approach to handwriting recognition, called Graffiti, has helped it dominate the PDA market.
According to the latest figures from Gartner Dataquest Inc., a research firm based in
, Conn., the Palm OS holds a 50.2 percent market share, with Microsofts Pocket PC claiming 28.3 percent and the remainder split among several others.
Rather than trying to translate handwriting as did the Newton, Graffiti works by recognizing the shapes of characters. Some of the characters are unique to the system, forcing the user to learn them. Harder for the user, but easier for the software with more reliable results.
The primary selling point of the Tablet PC is the ability to write on its screen, but mindful of the Newton disaster Microsoft is playing down its handwriting recognition.
Instead, Microsoft is emphasizing the products "digital ink" capabilities. The idea is that rather than translate your handwriting into text, the software digitizes and saves your scribblings in their original form. When you search these notes for specific terms, the handwriting recognition kicks in, though still not converting it to text.
Early reviews of the Tablet PCs writing-to-text conversion feature say it suffers from the same garbled translation issues that long have plagued handwriting recognition.
Roger Kay, director of client computing at IDC, a technology market research firm based in Framingham, Mass., said that while the Tablet PC "has a chance" to succeed, he finds the first wave of them "problematic" -- particularly with regard to handwriting recognition.
Conrad H. Blickenstorfer, editor in chief of Pen Computing magazine, called the handwriting recognition a "combination of good and bad ideas." The good: It uses two recognizers simultaneously to decipher cursive writing. The bad: It requires an input panel, rather than allowing the user to write anywhere on the screen.
He cited Palms Graffiti as the best approach to handwriting recognition because it doesnt promise miracles. By requiring the user to learn how to use it, expectations are reduced.
Given the concerns over the Tablet PCs central feature, one might wonder if its worth the $250 premium over a similarly configured notebook PC.
At the Tablet PC launch, Gates described his target customer: "Anyone who spends time in meetings and wants to take notes, anybody who wants to read material in a natural way -- where you just hold the device in your hands -- will want this product, anybody who annotates things and wants to share those things."
The experts dont exactly disagree, but no one I spoke with thought the devices initial market would extend much beyond early adopters and spoiled executives.
As such, the consensus was that Apple doesnt need to respond with a Mac-based Tablet PC -- at least not yet.
"This is not a market Apple needs to try to lead," Miller said, noting that the corporate denizens Microsoft is targeting with the Tablet PC generally are not Apple customers.
Both Miller and Kay agreed that with Apple's design expertise, it probably could build an impressive Mac-based tablet computer, but should stay on the sidelines for now.
Meanwhile, Miller suggested that Apple still could work quietly on its own product just in case it became a competitive necessity. "It's less expensive to work in the laboratory," he said.
Certainly Apple has the elements required to build its own pen-based Mac device. The advanced handwriting-recognition software orphaned by the Newton already has been incorporated into the latest version of Mac OS X and rechristened "Inkwell."
Apple's recent standalone applications -- iCal, iSync, Mail, the Address Book and iChat -- also would enhance an Apple pen-computing device, particularly when married to its Airport wireless networking.
Still, theres no evidence that Apple is working on an "iTablet," but an August report in The
speculated that Apple is developing an "iPhone" that would combine the functions of a cellular telephone with a PDA -- and likely would include handwriting-recognition capabilities.