The Most Popular form of PC Sold in America

By Nicholas Kolakowski  |  Posted 2011-04-25 Print this article Print


'The Most Popular Form of PC Sold in America'

Speaking at Comdex in November, 2001, Microsoft's Bill Gates demonstrated prototypes of a tablet PC, predicting the form-factor would become immensely popular within five years. The size of a legal pad, the device ran Windows XP and included applications such as Autodesk's CAD software and Groove's collaboration platform.  

"The PC took computing out of the back office and into everyone's office," he told the audience. "The Tablet takes cutting-edge PC technology and makes it available wherever you want it, which is why I'm already using a Tablet as my everyday computer. It's a PC that is virtually without limits-and within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America."

Microsoft upgraded its stylus-based input software with Windows XP Tablet PC edition, originally released in 2002, with a service-pack upgrade in 2005. Despite Gates' prediction, however, tablet PCs remained largely a tool of niche industries, such as healthcare, stubbornly refusing to break into the mainstream.

Other companies, however, were thinking about how to make tablet PCs a mass-consumer item.

"I had this idea about having a glass display, a multitouch display," Apple's CEO told The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg during the D8 Conference in June 2010. "I asked our people about it. And six months later, they came back with this amazing display...and I thought, -My god, we can build a phone with this."

That process eventually led to the iPhone, which Apple released in the summer of 2007. When the smartphone proved a success (followed later by the iPod Touch, essentially the iPhone without a 3G connection), the company undertook developing a full-fledged tablet. The stylus was abandoned in favor of your finger.  

Apple released the iPad in April 2010. By the time Jobs spoke at the D8 Conference, the 9.7-inch tablet had sold some 2 million units, and in the process igniting a mad scramble among Apple's rivals to produce a competing device. Within months, Research In Motion had announced it would produce a BlackBerry-themed tablet, the PlayBook, based on a proprietary QNX operating system. Samsung, meanwhile, produced the 7-inch Galaxy Tab, running the Google Android operating system.

During a keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, 2010, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer presented a tablet built by Hewlett-Packard. "Almost as portable as a phone, but powerful as a PC running Windows 7," he said. "The emerging category of PCs should take advantage of the touch and portability capabilities."

The tablet PC in his hands, he added, would have the ability to surf the Web, display e-books, and play multimedia content. As 2010 wore on, though, HP's $1.2 billion acquisition of Palm, and its webOS operating system for portable devices, may have complicated Microsoft's tablet plans; when finally released near the end of the year, the Windows 7-equipped HP Slate 500 was aimed at the enterprise and, rumor had it, was produced only in limited quantities. At the same time, further talk suggested that HP's attentions had focused on porting webOS onto tablets.

In public appearances, Ballmer seemed to refocus much of his tablet talk on the future of the form-factor, in lieu of discussing any specific devices. He also defended the stylus as an input method for touch screens, despite the industry's growing focus on gesture control and virtual keyboards.

"Do we think people want to take notes and draw? What's the best way to do that? Well, there are different ways to do that and we'll support them all," Ballmer told the audience at the same D8 Conference at which Jobs detailed Apple's touch-screen history. "Today, we offer devices that do use a stylus. I certainly believe that people do want to take the things that they do today with pencil and paper and do them with new technologies."

Near the end of 2010, rumors circulated that Microsoft would announce a major tablet push at January's Consumer Electronics Show. Instead, Microsoft used the event to announce that the next version of Windows would support SoC (system-on-a-chip) architecture, in particular ARM-based systems from partners such as Qualcomm, Nvidia and Texas Instruments. In turn, that would give Microsoft increased leverage for porting Windows onto tablets and more mobile form-factors, currently the prime market for ARM offerings.

Nicholas Kolakowski is a staff editor at eWEEK, covering Microsoft and other companies in the enterprise space, as well as evolving technology such as tablet PCs. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Playboy, WebMD, AARP the Magazine, AutoWeek, Washington City Paper, Trader Monthly, and Private Air. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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