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Microsoft muscle behind Tablet PC blitz

The Microsoft Tablet PC publicity blitz made a scheduled stop in Silicon Valley last week. Speaking to a packed house at the Santa Clara Convention Center, Matt Pease, general manager of Microsoft's Northern California district, talked about ''the evolution of productivity tools,'' ''extending the PC infrastructure'' and devices that are ''taking ink to the next level.''

Microsoft is putting its considerable muscle behind this latest incarnation of pen-based computers. The software maker released its Windows XP Tablet PC Edition operating system a week earlier and has taken its show on the road to demonstrate its latest OS to IT professionals in selected cities around the country, flanked by an eager group of hardware and application vendors.

The new OS maintains the look and feel of XP, but its ''digital inking'' technology allows users to sketch notes and diagrams on electronic documents. The screens on which users write are not touch-sensitive, as, say, the screen on a Palm device. Rather, they are pressure-sensitive digitized screens that react to a magnetized stylus that allows users to make bold and soft marks. The OS also includes a handwriting recognition engine that translates handwritten notes into typed text, with varying degrees of success even in the day's demos.

The Windows-based tablet OS is not Microsoft's first foray into pen-based computing. Windows 3.11 included support for pen-based input way back in 1990. And Apple Computer made a bet on the ill-fated Newton. The previous generation of pen-computing devices was ''rushed to market,'' Pease said, but the success of the current generation of handheld devices proves that the market is ready.

Tablet devices already have a significant presence in niche vertical markets, such as hospitals and delivery services. Microsoft is looking to stake a claim for the tablet PC in the mainstream, and it's not going it alone. ''All of our customers embraced the technology even before we launched the [operating system],'' said Microsoft's Liz Levitt.

A handful of hardware vendors have begun shipping newly designed tablet devices that run the new operating system. Many were on hand at the Santa Clara event. Acer, Fujitsu, Hewlett-Packard, Motion Computing, ViewSonic and Toshiba exhibited new tablet devices.

Levitt demoed a number of these devices, and explained that tablet hardware currently comes in two basic form factors: ''convertible'' devices, which look like traditional laptops, but sport swiveling screens that click into place backward over the keyboards; and ''true slates,'' which are keyboard-less slabs that allow pen-only input. Some of the convertible devices have displays that actually detach from their keyboards. Most allowed users to orient the screen in vertical or horizontal modes. Virtually all of the devices have wireless capabilities.

All of the devices on display at the event run the Windows OS, which lets users write on the screen in several ways. The OS ships with Journal, a utility with a legal-pad-like interface; and the Tablet Input Panel (TIP), a window similar to the pen-input window on a PDA screen. The TIP allows users to input to virtually any Windows application.

More than 20 ISVs, including SAP and Adobe, have announced applications designed specifically for Microsoft's Tablet OS. Some of these apps are currently available; some are scheduled for release later this year and early in 2003.

A few application vendors showed their products at the event. Franklin Covey, the venerable maker of day planners and office productivity products, was showing its TabletPlanner software, touting it as the ''first planning application built specifically for the Tablet PC format.'' Collaboration software maker Groove Networks, which showed up at Comdex Fall 2001 with a prototype of Groove for the Tablet PC, showed the latest version of its software for the Tablet PC platform.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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