The pen is mightier than the sword, but is the stylus mightier than the pen? Microsoft certainly hopes so, because it is putting a large amount of cash on the line with its latest operating system launch.
The Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, which is being shipped in the fourth quarter, is designed specifically to work with stylus-based input, meaning that users can draw or write on the screen in the same way they would on a piece of paper. However, the fact that this "piece of paper" will cost more than £2,000 and will not hold up very well to coffee spills seems to have escaped the folks at Redmond.
Original equipment manufacturers that use the Microsoft operating system in their hardware are likely to produce machines in several possible configurations, say Microsoft executives, but one of the most popular is likely to be the flip-around - a conventional ultra-light notebook that has latches on the side which enable the screen to be unlocked and swivelled on its axis. After a 180-degree turn, it can be closed on top of the keyboard and relocked, so that the screen faces outwards, creating a digital tablet.
One of the features of Windows XP Tablet PC Edition is that it can be switched to portrait mode, meaning that you can write notes on it in the same way that you would on an A4 notepad. For me, the most attractive feature of this format was for sofa-based Web surfing and e-book reading. This may appeal to corporate users who need to do research at home, but it is more of a luxury than a vital feature.
The company also believes that the PC's notepad-like form will give it an advantage over the traditional notebook. There are some meeting situations in which it simply is not conducive to be staring over the top of a laptop screen, says Alexandra Loeb, vice-president of the Tablet PC team at Microsoft.
This sales point might be a little overstated - after all, notebooks are de rigeur in most meeting rooms these days, but there is no denying that tablet PCs look attractive.
Regardless of whether or not these machines look good, Microsoft has a long history of pen-based computing failures to live up to - not only those of third parties, but its own, too.
Pen-based input goes back to the start of the 1980s with devices such as the Micropad from 1980 which tried to recognise hand-printed text. The Gridpad, which was launched in 1989, was targeted at vertical market applications that required intuitive input in mobile environments, such as stocktaking and surveying.
Activity moved on apace in the 1990s, when Go Corp developed the Penpoint operating system in 1990. Momenta launched a pen-based computer with the same name in 1991.
The system, which had a 40Mbytes hard drive and 4Mbytes Ram, would have set you back $5,000 (£2,570) at the time. Microsoft stepped up to bat with its Windows for Pen computing system in 1993, which was essentially Windows 3.1 with pen drivers.
This was launched in the same year as the Apple Newton, a handheld device that included handwriting recognition - of sorts. It spawned thousands of jokes about poor handwriting recognition such as:
Q: How many Newton programmers does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: Foux! There to eat lemons, axe gravy soup.
"We don't want to be just another joke in the funny pages," said one Microsoft technical executive recently at a reviewer's workshop of the Tablet PC operating system, just seconds before trying to demonstrate the notetaking capabilities of the tablet PC and causing it to crash.
And he faces a tough challenge. All these systems have been consigned to the "where are they now" pile. So, system crashes of beta software aside, why does Microsoft believe that it can change the computing landscape nine years later with another system?
"In the early days, there were many reasons to reject those machines," says Microsoft founder Bill Gates of the early days of pen computing. "The hardware and the lack of wireless networking, for example."
Tablet PC hardware will have wireless networking based on the 80211b standard built-in, meaning that you will be able to sit in a meeting room and access files on the network without having to remember to download it first, he says.
Gates thinks this is important because of the way that the PC will be used. People will use it for vertical market applications but Microsoft is also hoping that people will use it in horizontal markets, too.
The company has even coined a phrase for tablet PC office users - corridor warriors - who are constantly flitting from meeting room to meeting room, and who need to take their PCs with them and take notes in an informal context. The idea is that the wireless network will create a digital notepad in which all notes are immediately accessible, without being plugged into the wall.
One might wonder why wireless networking is so fundamental to the tablet PC concept, given that the reference platform for the operating system is a fully-fledged PC which will be able to carry all the files that people need. In most cases, the tablet will be a replacement for a conventional notebook, but the question is whether people will be willing to pay the extra price.
Cost versus benefit analysis
Volker Wohlfarth, product marketing manager for Toshiba, which will be launching a system using the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition operating system this winter, predicts that the extra digitisation hardware will end up adding 10% to 20% more to the price of a tablet PC, compared to its non-pen-enabled equivalent.
With upgrade cycles for new machines ranging from 18 months to three years or more, it won't be too long before companies have to start thinking about whether the higher price of these new machines will provide adequate business benefit. Microsoft's rationale for introducing the new pen-enabled operating system is that it wants to promote ink to be "a first-class citizen".
By this, it means that it wants people to use handwriting as their main source of input and retrieval. This may be useful for some knowledge workers who type slowly and feel that they need a more intuitive form of input.
The stylus-based input works well. The digitiser underneath the tablet uses an electromagnetic field to create resonance with an enabled stylus. The digitiser samples the position of the stylus hundreds of times per second at a resolution of 8,000 x 6,000, creating a smooth sensation when drawing on the screen.
This makes the system useful for drawing diagrams, for example, which may be appropriate in the meeting room, and a Bezier curve function that smoothes out pen strokes makes both handwriting and drawings look better than they would on paper, in many cases.
Nevertheless, there are some limitations to the first version of the operating system that will give corporate users pause for thought. The first is handwriting recognition, which is at best erratic, especially when dealing with cursive text. Microsoft executives have downplayed this feature, instead suggesting that users leave their notes as printed handwriting and drawings.
Unfortunately, this gives rise to the second problem, which is the lack of integration between the Windows journal note-taking system and anything else. The note-taking system is aimed at meeting maestros who want to jot down their thoughts, and resembles a notepad, complete with ruled lines and a margin.
The problem is that you can only save or export handwritten journal notes in one of three formats: the proprietary Journal format, a Tiff file, or a Microsoft Web Archive (.MHT) file, none of which are of much use if you want to integrate with Microsoft Office.
These drawbacks will be an issue for IT departments that want to integrate tablet-based systems into the Microsoft Office environment. An Office toolkit for tablet PCs will be downloadable, providing users with features such as ink-based Office mail, and the ability to draw on Powerpoint presentations using the ink system. However, more integration is needed.
System battery life will also be an issue. The Acer Travelmate 100 unit that I tested provided 3.5 hours battery life, falling far short of the four to six hours that has been suggested in the past. One of the reasons for this could be the company's use of the Intel PIII-M system rather than a Transmeta product. Transmeta has always claimed longer battery life through the use of fewer transistors.
Hewlett-Packard has signed an agreement with Transmeta to produce a tablet PC using the company's Crusoe processor, but of the other companies which have announced a decision, all have plumped for Intel. Acer America's chief executive, Patrick SN Lin, argues that it is an image thing. If they are to be persuaded to buy tablet PCs, most companies want an Intel architecture because it fits their corporate profile. The suggestion is they are about as likely to use Transmeta processors as they are to use Linux on the desktop.
Suppliers are divided about what the tablet PC will do to the personal digital assistant (PDA) market, if it succeeds. Unsurprisingly, those who see it eradicating the PDA market the most are those without a stake in the pocket computing sector.
Scott Eckert, chief executive of Motion Computing, a company formed by some ex-Dell executives specifically to market tablet PC devices, says, "Both of those things can be merged into and replaced by one product.
"Take a $600 PDA and a $2,500 notebook - they can combine them for a cost that is substantially less than that."
On the other hand, Ted Clark, vice-president for Tablet PC at HP, thinks that the markets will remain distinct. "You're probably not going to pull your tablet out of your jacket pocket," he says.
Clark also used to head the iPaq division at Compaq, and HP still maintains a huge share of the PDA market with this product, so he has a vested interest. There will be some moderate erosion of the PDA market, but that it is highly unlikely to kill off the PDA sector entirely.
But for the tablet PC to make any inroads, it has to be accepted by users, and this acceptance is far from a foregone conclusion. The tablet is fun to use for about five minutes, but the temptation to revert to keyboard use is irresistible, and for the extra outlay, the devices must offer return on investment to customers.
A recent report from analyst IDC on UK PC sales in the first quarter of this year showed a 4% decline, which was better than expected. While consumer notebook sales helped to buoy up the industry, however, corporate notebook sales were slow, and research analyst Rita Sfeir concluded that companies were avoiding buying PCs that could not visibly help their business.
Scribbling on a good-looking screen may be a nice experience, but there is no immediate proof that such a feature will pay for the extra 10% to 20% that a tablet-enabled PC is likely to cost. It is probably not unrealistic to say that Microsoft has made the best pen computing platform in history - but the unfortunate fact is that until the economy picks up, there will not be many people willing to use it.
Tablet PCs will catch on, especially as the feature becomes a standard across most ultralight notebooks. But do not expect the market to grow substantially for at least 18 months.
Know your Tablet PCs
Convertible Tablet PCs have attached keyboards and look much like notebook PCs.When you want to use it as a writing pad, simply rotate the screen and lay it flat against the computer for easy note-taking and pen input.
Pure Tablet PCs are ultra-slim and lightweight, with the ability to easily dock at a desktop to gain access to a large-screen monitor, full-size keyboard, and mouse.
Tablet PCs can be docked at a desk to support a large-screen monitor, mouse, and full-size keyboard. Some offer Windows XP Dual Monitor support, which lets you work on one screen while keeping your notes or calendar open on a second screen.
Tablet PCs allow you to quickly and easily change your screen orientation. You can switch from portrait to landscape modes as often as needed to meet your changing work environments.