MS unveils more than a product at Tablet PC launch

After two years of previews and sneak peeks, Microsoft Corp. and partners officially unveiled the Tablet PC in New York and San Francisco on Thursday.

Other than the tablet design, the salient feature in all of the devices is Microsoft Ink, a technology that will allow users to incorporate handwritten notes as a data type in the operating system.

The Ink technology is the key to understanding Microsoft's strategic thinking, according to some analysts.

"Gates is giving us a transitionary product," said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies Inc., in San Jose, Calif.

By carefully introducing the concept of a pen married to a traditional laptop design, Microsoft is creating a platform and hoping software developers will start getting creative and slowly introduce it into the device and application layer, according to Bajarin.

"They could own that platform for a long time. I don't see Apple (Computer Inc.) going in this way, and I would be very surprised if we see a Linux tablet. They are trying to drive the next generation of mobile computing," Bajarin said.

In order to do that, however, ISVs need to buy in to the idea, and in the current economic climate that may take awhile, said Randy Matamoros, CEO of Bear River Associates in Oakland, Calif. Bear River is an ISV specializing in Pocket PC and Palm-based mobile applications.

"Three years ago there was a lot of spec work going on and now I just don't see that. For us, it would be a matter of having the customer, the application [they wanted] ... all the stars have to be aligned," Matamoros said.

At its introduction there will be about two dozen applications specifically targeted for use on a Tablet PC, including MySAP CRM from SAP, an Autodesk CAD/CAM application with inking capabilities, a Corel drawing program, a contact calendar application from FranklinCovey, and a collaborative application from Groove Networks.

In what is turning out to be the great debate among industry watchers, the question is whether or not these units will be relegated to vertical markets or become a standard tool of corporate life, cutting a more horizontal path.

One corporate executive evaluating beta units from Acer said the Ink capability, called Journal, is a broad solution for the "corridor warriors" on its corporate campus.

"On campus we have a great many people running around going from meeting to meeting. We found in our tests those that were avid note takers liked the Journal product. They could search on huge pages of notes. They used to go through page after page and say things like, 'I know it was in the bottom right hand corner ... somewhere,'" said Dave Serverson, product and capability manager for Best Buy Company, in Eden Prairie, Minn.

While Severson was pleased with the Acer units, he is not ready to commit until he sees other competitive units and until the pricing strategy of the OEMs becomes clearer. However, Severson does see the product as a horizontal solution simply offering a new capability in what will become the standard notebook over time.

"Purchasing [plans] would be similar to the way most companies buy laptops, following the PC lifecycle change. We have to figure out how [to] fit the technology with the people who gain the most benefit," Severson said.

While Microsoft is not manufacturing the Tablet PC itself, the company does to a great extent specify what hardware components are required within a device bearing the Tablet PC logo, according to numerous hardware OEMs.

Units from Acer, Fujitsu, Motient, Hewlett-Packard, NEC, Toshiba, ViewSonic, and others use one of two form factors: either a single flat-screen panel or a unit with a tilt-and-swivel panel plus a standard keyboard that can be used in tablet mode or in place of a single-spindle thin and light notebook.

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