Tablets, take two

Microsoft isn't about to tell you that the upcoming release of the Tablet PC OS is the next generation of the Tablet architecture -- that would be admitting that there was something wrong with the first one. Nevertheless, Microsoft and a handful of OEMs are taking another run at the touchy-feely notebook. And it isn't just a fresh marketing push. It's a genuine reworking that creates new reasons for looking at the platform again.

About 500,000 Tablet PC devices are out there, and Microsoft is damn proud of that. Those numbers are paltry compared with sales of PC notebooks, even compared with sales of Apple PowerBooks. But the Tablet PC has remained in a specialized class of devices embraced by vertical markets.

Its lack of presence in the overall business market isn't for lack of trying on Microsoft's part. Tablet PC manufacturers bet that subnotebooks would be the rage. Strapping a stylus-sensitive screen onto a barely-there mobile machine seemed like an unbeatable combination. Only customers with Tablet-specific requirements could afford the US$3,000 price tag. And those with that kind of money were far more likely to look for highpowered portable desktops.

And then there was the software. Oh, dear; Windows for Tablet PC. I give Microsoft credit for hacking Windows to work with a stylus at all. But shortcomings in the software made the Tablet PC a bitter pill rather than an acquired taste. The promise that non-Tablet-aware apps could work in a Tablet PC environment rang hollow. The only people making money from Tablets were those who adapted the architecture by building expensive, low-volume hardware and custom software.

I am the hardest of hard sells for the Tablet because my handwriting is awful. Microsoft claims it can score 95 percent accuracy with its handwriting recognition. I get about 80 percent, and that's on a day when I haven't had too much caffeine. I lost interest in the Tablet PC because doing anything with it required flipping from the keyboard to the screen and back again. After flipping and flipping and flipping, I sheathed the stylus and never brought it out.

I need a lot more time before I start drawing conclusions, but at least superficially, Microsoft has addressed most of my gripes about the platform with its newest Tablet PC OS, which is based on Windows XP Service Pack 2.

Meanwhile, Toshiba Corp. is doing wonders with it. I'm working with Toshiba's M200, and the customized software rocks. Toshiba put four stylus-sensitive regions to the right of the display. You can customize each of these buttons, and Toshiba also includes a gesture engine that limits the number of trips to the Start menu (menus and styli do not mix). When you run the machine in tablet mode with the keyboard concealed, the buttons around the display's perimeter are very handy. The M200 has three microphones on the display bezel to reduce input noise for telephony and voice recognition.

Toshiba's design highlights the usefulness of the new Tablet PC architecture that actually delivers the ability to use the stylus with non-Tablet-aware apps. I'll revisit the Tablet as the retail release of the new OS approaches.

It still must get better from here. However, I can say that I do a lot less flipping when I'm using the Toshiba M200 Tablet PC. Maybe I can acquire a taste for the Tablet after all.

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