Microsoft Corp.s Tablet PC operating system will have its long awaited coming-out party next week, joined by a handful of hardware devices that bring Windows XP to a new form factor.
Vendors announcing Tablet PC-based devices include Hewlett Packard Co., Acer Inc., Fujitsu PC Corp., Viewsonic Corp. and Toshiba America Information Systems.
Most expect to have the devices, which are about the size of a legal notepad and half the weight of a typical laptop, on sale by the end of the year. They are expected to retail for around $2,200, according to officials at the Redmond, Wash., company.
The gist of the Tablet PC system is that it combines pen-based handheld computing and speech recognition with a traditional PC operating system, which enables users to scribble notes directly onto applications and integrate text and voice.
Microsofts licensees have designed their devices accordingly.
Some consist of a large, lightweight monitor that users can operate with a stylus when on the go, and then attach to a docking station when they are at their desks and want access to a keyboard and mouse. The devices can be removed from the docking stations while they are still running.
Other Tablet PCs include both a keyboard and an LCD panel screen that can rotate 180 degrees or fold flat over the keyboard. HPs Tablet PC will feature a detachable monitor, sources said.
The Tablet PC may be ideal for vertical markets such as health care, insurance and law, where voice recording and annotating documents is part of a regular work day. Software manufacturers are designing products specifically for the new platform. Corel Corp., for example, next week will unveil Grafigo, a "graphics on the go" application. The company has plans for various enterprise versions of Grafigo for different vertical segments such as manufacturing, according to sources close to the Ottawa company.
Critics question the heartiness of the Tablet PC form factor, though.
"I know my guys in the field would just beat on it," said Tommer Catlin, Tommer Catlin, IS director at Webcor Technologies Inc., a construction contracting company in San Mateo, Calif., "We saw the one from Acer, which is hinged, and a hinge is going to break."
All of the devices have at least an Intel Corp. mobile 600MHz chip set; a pen interface; and adequate memory to run Windows XP (128MB minimum RAM). In addition, Microsoft recommends 802.11b wireless support, USB expansion slots and a video-out connection.
Microsoft officials have acknowleged that it may take a while for the industry to get used to using a big handheld computer, but speaking to an audience at Comdex in Las Vegas last year, Microsofts chairman and chief software architect claimed he was already using a Tablet "as my everyday computer.
"Its 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, " Gates said.