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Tablet PCs – the cool portables that come with a free pen

No work-life revolutions in this phase, we fear...

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For the past couple of weeks I've had the opportunity, courtesy of those nice people at Microsoft, to change my life with the aid of a Tablet PC. As is so frequently the case with the Next Big Thing from Redmond, my life remains strangely unchanged; but perhaps more ominously from Microsoft's point of view, I've now stopped wondering where the beef is and concluded that there's no beef there, in this rev of the platform. Practically everything that you can do with this machine, you could already do by other means, sometimes better, and the 'special features' are so limited (and limiting) that you keep thinking 'it might be be nicer if it could only...' rather than, 'hey, that's cool.'

How do you put people off pen computing? Easy - put out a pen computer whose pen facilities seem more or less glued onto a normal computer, with only perfunctory integration with the rest of the platform.

Before I go any further I'd best say what the platform was - an Acer TravelMate 100 running Windows XP, Tablet Edition. There are two ways of looking at this, I've tried both, and in a funny kind of way, one of them looks like it might work. Less satisfactory approach number one first though. Despite the extensive managing downwards of expectations Microsoft has been engaged in prior to the Tablet rollout next month, you're still going to be likely to wish for something just a little revolutionary to pop out of the box. When Microsoft demoed Tablet to me last month (using the same type of machine) I did a little bit of speculating about why the digital ink model had a worth in its own right that wasn't necessarily dependent on recognition, and while I wasn't expecting a fully-formed new software genre to be present in the eval unit, just a little bit more sign that it was coming, or that Microsoft had actually put some significant work into the platform in the past two years, would have been nice.

Instead, you get a portable computer of the ultra-light class that has been issued with active screen, a hinge device that lets you swivel the screen round to cover the keyboard and turn it into a notepad, and a demo app that lets you use it as a notepad. That is, largely, the sum of it, from the user's perspective. Pen hasn't been integrated into the version of Office that shipped with the machine (coming soon), and although I wasn't expecting great things from the handwriting recognition, it had mysteriously deteriorated from not very good to absolutely awful between my using an Acer at the Microsoft demo and getting two weeks to practice with it at home.

My handwriting is bad, accepted, and if I wanted the Acer to be able to read what I was writing I had to print. This is what I have to do if I want other people to read my notes, and this is why I use a keyboard to write my notes. So until such time as properly integrated applications are available, this leaves me using a Tablet as a pad of paper, taking notes for myself only. There are indeed circumstances where it's more useful to take handwritten notes than to sit typing them on a notebook computer, but in these, paper generally does, so I'm afraid I'm underwhelmed.

Note however that I said 'from the user's perspective' back there, because despite external appearances to the contrary there has been a great deal of work put into XP, Tablet Edition under the covers. The trouble is that this generally falls under the heading of 'enablers,' and won't be visible until such time as developers take advantage of the various hooks, and users can say, 'hey, that's cool.'

Upsides

So, about the way of looking at it that might work? Well, I'm conscious that the good folk at Acer, who seem to have supplied Microsoft with sufficient eval units to cover every journalist, analyst and miscellaneous ligger on the face of the planet, must feel some angst when they see 'where's the beef' pieces about their nice baby. And these pieces (this one included) are to an extent unjust, because actually it is a very nice baby. It's a cute little ultraportable I wouldn't mind having if I were currently in the market for one, and as it's probably not going to be a bad price when it ships, I'd certainly consider it along with a cool-looking Vaio, titchy ThinkPad or Mac (got to think about jumping ship sooner or later) if an unexpected shipment of wealth suddenly arrived.

The Acer just happens to be an ultraportable that is being called a Tablet PC, and that has a pen-enabled screen as an extra. There will be numerous of these around, and so long as their price tag isn't seriously out of line with pen-less equivalents, then there isn't that much need to worry about what use pen input would be to you - it's there if you want it, but you don't need to use it.

That, I think, is what Microsoft really intended for Tablet PC in this generation. The company sees, probably with some justification, that there is a good future for pen-enabled computers somewhere in the middle distance. It therefore makes sense for it to get the enabling hardware out there, on the basis that if it's standard then it will be developed for on a wide scale. But at this point, you hit your rock and your hard place.

In order to get the manufacturers to build them Microsoft has to convince them that people are going to buy them, so it's got to convince people that they're great, and then it all becomes one of those unstoppable Microsoft self-fulfilling prophecies. People wind up buying the machines because they can't buy anything else anyway. But if the first machines on the market are sufficiently disappointing for people to generally look on them in the first way I looked at the Acer, then the entire genre will be vulnerable to the kind of 'Doonesbury factor' that hit the Apple Newton. And although Microsoft can manage expectations downwards, there's at least an argument that says the only way of managing them down far enough in this case is to confess that actually, there's really not a lot there at all.

Tricky. So should you buy one? Two answers again, yes and no. If you're looking for an ultraportable class PC, then they're worth considering. You will not, in this generation, get one with sufficient battery life for you to be able to use it all day, (although this kind of approach sounds promising) but you'll get pretty much the same battery life as you would with a non-Tablet ultraportable. You will get Windows XP, right now you don't have a choice about that, and that could be a possible objection, although you could say the same thing about virtually any other portable you can get in the stores today. As with these, you could no doubt put another OS onto it, but in the case of Tablets you probably wouldn't be able to use pen input, at least initially.

If you're looking for a 'proper' Tablet PC, by which I mean the extreme, slate-like variety Microsoft first demoed two years ago, then no, I don't think you want one yet. There will be a few Tablets in this kind of format, but Microsoft doesn't expect them to move in anythying like the volumes of the convertibles. Non-Tablet devices of this class already exist, they're fairly light, have longish battery life, and specialist software that's designed for pen input, mobile data capture, computing on the move and in hostile environments, and so on. They are not however PCs. They use specialist operating systems, or increasingly these days CE, they're not flashy, they're not mainstream, they just get the job done. That, it seems to me, is the current state of the market, and this generation of Tablet won't change it, although if Microsoft shifts sufficient units it may create the conditions for change.

It is however just about possible to envisage some kind of intermediate stage. The people from Viewsonic were strutting their stuff around the time when Microsoft was first showing me the Acer, and although Viewsonic had a more Tablet-like Tablet than the Acer and various permutations of vast screen to boast about, I spent most of my time playing with the airpanel 100 instead. Although this isn't a Mira device, it is like Mira in that it is a smart display, its intended market being as a mobile desktop extension for use in business.

As indeed you can see from the scary price tag. But for the moment let's think about the concept rather than the cost. It's fairly light, totable and pen-controllable. It can function as an independent device, connecting via 802.11, it can exchange data with your PC (if it's running XP Pro), and it can work with corporate networks via Citrix or Microsoft RDP. But in principle, if you can hook it up to a network with 802.11 or even GPRS, then you can access whatever data you want from anywhere, and if you want to wander round the house or the office browing the web and checking your email, you can do that. And as it comes with Windows Media Player (in this case, unusually, I view this as a good point) it has a potential entertainment role as well.

Now, it seems to me that something of this class makes a better fist of achieving some of the things you'd want from a Tablet PC than Tablet PCs themselves do. You've got the battery life, lower weight, and although you can't carry around all your stuff it allows you to access your stuff. And doesn't it strike you as insane/inane in this day and age for Microsoft to be trying to get you to still carry all your stuff around, when you should less and less need to, because you can get at it anyway?

The Viewsonic doesn't fulfil other Tablet criteria, but at this juncture I'd argue these are less important in real life than they are in Microsoft's department of roadmapping. It's not a PC, and it doesn't have the flashy handwriting stuff (but the lack of an active display means you can navigate just by flicking it with your fingernail, rather than having to use the special stylus you just lost down the back of the sofa). I stress that the half-baked scenario I'm currently outlining is all mine, and that Viewsonic just sat looking more and more puzzled as I quizzed them.

But in principle, they conceded that yes you could use it as a mobile, roaming web box, yes it was sort of Mira interchangable, and yes you could tote a small USB keyboard around with you. It's not what you're supposed to do with it, but I've booked an eval unit, and I'm going to give it a try. I'll get back to you. ®

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