I just attended the Bill Gates keynote address that opened the 21st Comdex and coincidentally the first in the 21st Century virtually over the Internet. While I didn't get the video working during his presentation, the audio channel was quite good with few dropouts. I thought it was humorous that Bill's keynote was NOT being broadcast using any Real player technology - Windows Media player was your ONLY choice. He talks about open standards and interoperability, but doesn't appear to practice it. I also thought that the behind the scenes chatter before the event started was interesting to listen to as the emcees talked amongst themselves. And even in our technological age of automated syntax checkers, I found that someone had managed to leave out a slash in the 22K download stream link on the Comdex Web site, causing an error to anyone trying to use that link. Since the server was busy when I tried the other streams, I looked at the HTML source code and was able to correct the URL for myself and access the audio. I was able to get in because few people were using that audio stream because you had to "patch" the URL, instead of click.
This is the first Fall Comdex that I didn't physically attend in Las Vegas since the 1980's, when new 286 and 386 computers were in vogue and Windows was only an operating environment. While Bill has been the opening keynote speaker for quite awhile now, it wasn't always that way. There was a time that Comdex didn't have a "Windows World" component and other speakers opened this event about new hardware and software. Even today, with many companies touting new service oriented technologies, people still respond to cool gadgets and novel software applications.
The singlemost item that I felt was most spectacular from the audience's applause reaction (I was virtual and couldn't see - only audio) was when Bert Keeley gave the audience the "first public glimpse of the Tablet PC". Neither the hardware nor the software was pared down like either Windows CE or Palm. This was a full fledged PC, running "Whistler", Microsoft's next generation OS similar to Windows 98 or 2000 today. It has a 10 gigabyte drive, a 500+ MHz Transmeta processor, 128 Mb of RAM, USB ports, wireless networking and is capable of running full-sized applications such as Microsoft Visio. It consists of a thin flat panel display with the entire computer sandwiched underneath. Imagine if the display of your laptop could detach, yet STILL be completely functional - this is what the Tablet PC is. Not only can it read native file formats, it can edit them as well, with as much computing power as a standard tower, but in a much lighter weight package, essentially "everything you would expect in a PC".
From Bert's description, the Tablet PC sounds very similar to the first pen computer I used in early 1995 to take notes at monthly meetings and at trade shows - an NCR 3130. Using it proved to me that a portable pen tablet was a powerful tool. As I upgraded my pen computer to the faster Compaq Concerto and the IBM 730 tablet, I found them to be remarkable devices. I have carried them to nearly every trade show I attended and still have notes and other information "at my fingertips". What has amazed me was that for many years attending Comdexes, a large computer trade show, how few people actually carried a computer with them. Their computers were back in their offices or in the hotel rooms, but never where they were actually working or needed to take notes. Bill Gates is also another Concerto owner and I feel that he has always been impressed by the use of a pen-based interface.
Using a pen instead of a keyboard makes sense because there are over a BILLION people in the world whose language doesn't work very well with the English 101/105 keyboard. I own a Pentel Japanese keyboard which is 2 square feet in area and the entire English keyboard, with a separate key for upper and lower case is only a small area lost in the upper right hand corner. I foresee a day that a keyboard based computers will be amongst the MINORITY of computers being sold.
Since a tablet PC allows users the ability to work with and EDIT the real documents instead of a look alike version on a tiny screen, I feel that people can be more productive - I know I have in the nearly six years I have used a pen-based "tablet" PC. Bert says that the tablet PC, is "a PC that is optimized for people that spend a part of their day away from their desk" and further queried, "isn't that just about everybody"?
While the audience didn't seem to get this reference, he meant that anyone can use it. Today's knowledge workers may be in a cubicle for most of the day, but there are those meetings in the conference room. And that's where a Tablet PC is handy. You can take notes, create and send E-mails - everything you could do with your tower PC, but where you are, not back at your desk or cubicle. While it could be a great e-book appliance as well with the Microsoft Reader application, its ability to run native applications is its greatest strengths.
Bert further explained that the "tablet" configuration isn't going to be the only form factor. Ultrathin laptops will be created that opened so far that the screen can fold back to "convert" into a Tablet PC. IBM had a similar idea back in 1994/1995 timeframe with their convertible 750P and 360P/PE convertibles. These allowed a laptop screen to pivot on a central point on the right and left hand sides so the laptop could close with the screen pointing up.
While these older pen computers worked quite well, today's processors are over 30 times faster and this additional power makes the performance of this generation of tablet computers quite stellar. Bert demonstrated that ink "flowed" from the electronic pen very well and it was quite fluid, since data is captured from the pen at 133 samples per second, much faster than today's mouse sampling rate of only 30-40 samples per second. Each stroke is converted to Bezier splines which smooths them. Antialiasing the edges in real- time is an added touch that should make your handwriting look better than it does on real paper!
He further "wowed" the audience as he showed off the wonderful electronic paper capabilities of this Tablet PC that go well beyond real paper . He showed that he could word wrap his written text and search through it, just like a "text- based" word processor. People seem to really appreciate the ability for this device to push text down the page to make space for additional writing. I have found this feature very helpful when I take notes in meetings. People go through the main topics, I write them down. When they describe the subordinate ideas, under each main topic, I simply "push" the text down and write them in. This way I end up with a more usable document that I can carry with me.
You may wonder how I have the same pen-based capability that Bill demonstrated for the "first" time here at Comdex. It comes from a software package called "Aha! InkWriter" and it was a wonderful product that I was very excited about when I first saw it in 1994 in Chicago. I felt that it was ahead of its time, but worked very well. Bill Gates thought so too. He bought the company back in 1996 and I didn't see any product utilize its technology until today. The audience got very excited (cheers and applause) when they saw other features such as "bolding your writing", "italicizing" it and "highlighting" it. Bert also demonstrated its ability to differentiate between writing and drawings, just like aha! Inkwriter did so many years ago. He coined the phrase "Think with electronic ink"
Bill Gates then commented that there is more fighting at Microsoft over who gets access to Tablet PC prototypes than any new thing they have ever done. He felt "that was a good sign" and I would have to agree and have for nearly five years. The only part that I don't understand is that this model is slated for the 2003 timeframe - why so long Bill? Everybody seemed to love it!
The key software component that Bill talked about was XML. It appears that he wants to have nearly every software product he sells to support this technology. Another senior editor at Reviews OnLine has been extolling the virtues and capabilities of XML since 1998. He will discuss that, along with Visual Studio.net, C# and other development topics of Bill's keynote address in a future update.
© 2000 Rick Smith All rights reserved.