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Microsoft Tablet PC Launch
a Pen Computing Revival
by Stephen R.Jones (November 17, 2002)

The launch of Windows XP for Tablet PCs in Chicago was a well attended revival meeting intended to whip up marketplace fervor for the new computing platform -- Tablet PC. If the 300+ crowd who took office time out, for this event on Navy Pier, is representative, this new form factor appears to generate ample curiosity. The audience hung on every word, scrutinized every demo and seemed more than eager to get their hands on the new Tablet PC products from these key players:

  • HP/Compaq
  • Fujitsu
  • ViewSonic
  • Acer

    The real question of the afternoon was whether this devoted curiosity will translate into purchase orders dropped into the offering plates of Microsoft and its Tablet PC partners.

    Microsoft's Midwest-region evangelists enthusiastically prophesied the coming paradigm shift that the Tablet PC hopes to represent. Like any good sermon, the message was full of old sins that will be washed away along with righteous virtues that are the reward of embracing this future.

    Acknowledging the failed history of Tablet PCs was a gutsy move, given that many in the audience might not even remember that Microsoft had a Pen for Windows 1.0 product back in Windows 3.1 days. Microsoft's reps showed uncharacteristic humility by saying, "We've learned from past failures (ours and those of others)." They admitted that, more than any other reason, the hardware and software was just not "up to snuff" a decade ago. Pen recognition, specifically, was portrayed as being an arduous trial for the 25 and 33 MHz processors of the day. A recurring refrain of nearly every presentation was that Windows XP for Tablets has the best recognition ever implemented. In the demos, recognition was instantaneous and of course, unfailingly accurate.

    Having quickly atoned for the past sins of pen computing, the remainder of the ninety minute sermon was dedicated to praising the abundant virtues of this "born-again" Tablet PC platform. Wisely, Microsoft didn't just proclaim Tablet PCs as "really cool" for technology's sake. Through rousing video testimonials and earnest live demos, the Tablet PC faithful from Microsoft and its partners testified to the twin virtues of productivity and creativity they will bring to these three market segments:

  • Field workers
  • Creatives
  • "Corridor warriors"

    Presenters shrewdly focused their stories on how this form factor could be used by specific types of workers in specific industries. Field workers in these "vertical markets" have long been targeted by pen computer manufacturers, which include insurance adjusters, health-care workers and outside sales reps. Many of the demos and testimonials were geared toward these same professions, where "stand-up" computing is a natural. Being able to fill in forms and look up information, while standing, makes sense, especially when these Tablet PCs are coupled to back-end systems, using wireless access.

    Representatives from the 7-11 store chain were quite enthusiastic about the Tablet PC. Their video confirmed the time saved and the accuracy gained, when sales support data was captured within the store, instead of having to be transcribed afterwards in either the car or office. It was quite compelling to see that doctors at a hospital would not only have access to your chart, but also would have immediate access to your X-rays and latest lab results. All of this data would be kept current, using the hospital's secure wireless .NETwork and back-end technology. While these markets have been sold pen technology in the past, it was definitely worth repeating that the new Tablet PC platform is well suited for these demanding applications.

    Entirely new, I believe, was Microsoft's commitment to bring the tablet gospel to the "creatives" -- anyone who spends a large part of their day brainstorming, illustrating or communicating concepts, especially visual ones. Executives, writers and artists from the Leo Burnett advertising agency in Chicago were given Tablet PCs for a month or so before the official launch. They enthusiastically endorsed the platform, saying that it enabled a kind of "spontaneous collaboration" not possible before. The ability to capture and convey ideas instantly, coupled with the ability to organize and share drawings and notes digitally, allowed ideas to pop-up anywhere -- from hallways to lunchrooms. Cheerful, attractive 20-somethings declared the happy end of "drawing on napkins".

    Finally, this revival turned its ministry toward the unwashed masses that Microsoft believes is ripe for conversion. They focused on a particular sect of white-collar workers who are the laptop lugging sinners being dubbed "corridor warriors". They are characterized by spending their day trudging around the office, from meeting to meeting, always taking notes. In this environment, a laptop was portrayed as a social liability with these problems:

  • Slow to boot
  • Difficult to draw with
  • Disruptive to type on

    A Tablet PC on the other hand offers quick start-up times (under 5 seconds, they say) and is natural to draw on and a perfectly quiet note-taker. Moreover, Microsoft kept hammering home the message that Windows XP Tablet Edition is a superset of Windows XP and that Tablet PCs are full-powered PCs. Therefore, Tablet PCs are not to be considered as secondary PCs (like most PDAs) but as highly portable, primary PCs. This vision is made possible by convenient tablet docking stations that provide easy hookups for both desktop monitors and conventional keyboards. Since these docks support instant "hot-undock" capability, Tablet PCs are truly grab-and-go desktops, not simply large PDAs.

    Throughout the presentation there was ample laying-on-of-hands, where a live presenter showed a Tablet PC in action. Of course, in the demos, handwriting recognition was a snap, making few errors. Yet, Microsoft was careful (maybe too careful) to emphasize that recognition was often unimportant -- just recording digital ink was valuable on its own. That seems to be the philosophy behind the central new application, Journal, which lets you scribble notes in a virtual notebook. Unfortunately, you have to select your handwriting and then make a selection from a pull-down menu in order to convert handwriting to text. If recognition is so good, why isn't it turned on by default?

    Also, some of the audience's enthusiasm dissipated as some of the demos faltered. During the course of the presentation one pen failed completely and a Tablet PC locked up twice, having to be restarted and "futzed-with" backstage. The audience seemed to be more bemused by the glitches than put off by them. Most damaging to the audience's enthusiasm was the few times that the Fujitsu tablet stuttered and paused, in response to basic stylus actions, such as pulling down a menu or clicking on dialog buttons. No doubt these occasional stumbles contributed to a guarded enthusiasm heard in the applause after each demo and skeptical curiosity that drove the crowd to the vendor booths after the show.

    Glitches aside, the presenters did a capable and energetic job of conveying the value of the Tablet PC form-factor in a variety of real world situations. Their core message was that Tablet PCs are not just "cool", but they can make you much more productive in ways and places that desktops and notebook PCs cannot. Not surprisingly, Microsoft used the energy of the event to tout the tight integration of .NET and Office XP with Tablet PC functionality. Among the flashier demos was one that showed how you could circle a scribbled date in Journal and automatically create a calendar event in Outlook. Likewise, they made it look easy to incorporate penned drawings into Word and PowerPoint.

    Unfortunately, it appeared that much of Tablet PC "wow" factor depended on either deep integration with Office XP or costly custom development. I wasn't alone in the audience feeling that this was a bit of a cheat (and conceit) on Microsoft's part. These demonstrations had sent the unintentional message that Tablet PCs aren't useful on their own with existing applications, but instead require custom tablet applications, communicating wirelessly (via .NET, no doubt) with custom back-end applications. Such whizbang integration is obviously out of the reach of most early-adopters -- individual or corporate. Potential corporate customers in the audience, with any fiscal sense, quickly came to realize that achieving this type of front to back-end nirvana requires a sizeable investment in custom IT development. I detected this same bottom-line skepticism at the vendor booths after the show. The seriously curious wanted to know how the platform performs now and what applications are available off the shelf today.

    Clearly there was real enthusiasm on the stage, in the gushing video testimonials and in the attending audience. You can hardly blame the Tablet PC apostles from Redmond for hanging a halo on this "born-again" product category as it made its debut in Chicago, New York and elsewhere. Moreover, Microsoft did a great job of making the case for Tablet PCs by not only targeting the types of professions that this technology would benefit, but also detailing specific applications. In the end, there was a spiritual feeling that Tablet PCs might stick around this time for all the right reasons -- not simply because of its whizbang appeal, but because the Tablet PC technology is finally ready and the customer base is finally PC-savvy enough to put them to good use.

    Read "Laying on of the Hands: Touching the Tablet PC".

    Copyright 2002 Stephen R. Jones All rights reserved.

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