Tablet PC: Much Hype, Few Specifics

At Comdex, Microsoft touts the Tablet PC as the mobile business PC and form factor of the future, but give few specifics.

LAS VEGAS--Executives from Microsoft Corp. and its OEM partners are in town at Comdex to tout the Tablet PC, which they say is the mobile business PC and form factor of the future.

But apart from a lot of hype and a couple of prototypes available for demonstrations, there were few specifics available regarding potential product line makeup, features, cost and availability, despite the fact that Microsoft lined up an array of Tablet PC partners including Compaq Computer Corp, Acer Inc. and Fujitsu PC Corp. at a lovefest event Sunday night.

Ted Clark, vice president of the Tablet PC group at Compaq, was tight-lipped about his companys plans. "We are just at the prototype stage and are evaluating many design possibilities. I dont expect well announce our product lineup much before the middle of next year," he told eWEEK in an interview.

Clark also declined to give any pricing details, saying that this would "realistically be priced near a comparably equipped notebook. I expect the Tablet to cost several hundred dollars more than a comparable laptop," he said, adding that there is potential over time for a range of Tablets priced depending on their functionality.

Clark does not expect the release of the Tablet to have any significant effect on demand for handheld devices such as PDAs. But it will replace certain categories of laptops and most demand will probably come from existing notebook users rather than those currently using Tablet PCs, he said.

He declined to comment on how the recently reached settlement with the federal government and states will affect this product going forward.

Microsoft spokesmen also declined to comment on this, saying that matter is "in the hands of the lawyers."

Prototypes on view included a convertible form factor that is both a laptop and Tablet PC, a slate form factor that is a regular-sized Tablet, and a very small form factor.

Earlier in the evening, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates told the crowd of more than 10,000 who attended his keynote address that he expects the Tablet to become the most popular form of PC within five years.

Leland Rockoff, a director in the Microsoft Tablet PC division, told eWEEK in an interview that he expects most early demand for the Tablet to come from the ultraportable laptop market. "Those users of those really slim, lightweight machines will probably be the first to migrate to the Tablet PC in any meaningful way in the first year," he said, widening to users of all other portables over time.

Microsoft, which is hoping to attract developers to the platform, announced the Tablet PC Platform Software Development Kit at its Professional Developer Conference in Las Angeles last month. "We also have a tentative plan to refresh this beta depending on the feedback we get," Rockoff said.

"While OEMs dont like to announce their product lineup more than 90 days in advance, we are hoping for a beta testing program around that in the early spring, which will consist primarily of corporate early adopters," he said.

In regard to its debut, Rockoff would only say that the final product is set to ship in the second half of next year. Microsoft is also dictating "as little as we possibly can" to its OEM partners with regard to the Tablet and has publicly posted the hardware requirements.

The Tablet has to be able to run every application that runs on Windows XP Pro. Microsoft, unlike other Tablet manufacturers, wants to ensure that it isnt seen as a proprietary system that requires special applications to be ported or developed, Rockoff said.

"It starts first and foremost being a laptop with absolutely no trade-offs and those tens of thousands of applications that run on it, some of which with absolutely no alterations," he said.

Full power of Windows XP

Jeff Raikes, group vice president of Microsofts business productivity group, told the media at a Tablet PC event following Gates keynote that it is the next evolution of the laptop/notebook form factor. "Our research has shown that a laptop doesnt get used for the bulk of most peoples workday because it is not that portable and easy to use.

"But, with the Tablet PC, users not only get the full power of Windows XP and all the features and functionality of a laptop, but they get a lightweight, portable system with a long-lasting battery, built-in wireless support and the ability to take notes in ink," he said.

Raikes also announced a number of new hardware manufacturers, including FIC, NEC, PAD Products Inc., Tatung Co. and ViewSonic Corp. Software developers included Adobe Systems Inc., Corel Corp., Groove Networks, LexisNexis and Zinio Systems Inc., while semiconductor technology is being supplied by Intel Corp., Transmeta Corp. and VIA Technologies.