Happy Birthday, Tablet PC

On the platform's first anniversary, it's worth gauging its technological progress, recalling its forerunners and evaluating its prospects.

On Friday, the Tablet PC turned one year old. It has been an interesting year for this new product: In some ways, it was both premature and late.

Premature, in that the processors and battery technology that would make this product work properly had not arrived by the time it launched; and incredibly late considering it is a transition product from pen and paper, an alternative that seemingly should have arisen much earlier in history of the PC.

The most painful part of the Microsoft-driven platforms early days: You had to choose between a product that was cool and had great battery life but sucked in terms of system performance (the HP Tablet PC equipped with a Transmeta Crusoe processor) and products that had decent performance but sucked in terms of battery life and system killing heat (models outfitted with the Intel Pentium III-M). It wasnt until late in the first year when Centrino-based systems came to market. Suddenly, we could have decent battery life and decent performance even in the market leading designs from HP and Toshiba.

Of course, we will likely have to wait for another 12 to 18 months before fuel cells arrive to drive these systems for the 8 to 16 hours that the market demands in a product that is designed fully to replace pen and paper.

While not perfect, this product has actually had a comparatively good first year. Its success has a lot to do with the products that really defined the product class long before the Tablet PC came to market; we should take a moment to reminisce about some of the departed (and somewhat illegitimate) parents of the Tablet PC. The most memorable of these early tablets is the Apple Newton, which not only helped spawn the Tablet PC but launched the Palm computer—an ironic turn of events that echoed Apples own borrowings from Xerox in the early 80s. (Xerox made early strides with the graphical user interface and the mouse, both of which defined the first Macs and, eventually, Windows).

If the Newton was the Father of the Tablet, Microsofts WinPad was the mother. This was a product: basically, a laptop computer with a touchscreen that really defined what the market needed in a product and helped define one of the critical decisions for the Tablet—the use of a digitizer over a touchscreen. This allowed users to rest their hands on the screen while writing and provided a much brighter picture overall. This innovation, coupled with the vastly lower cost, allowed the Tablet PC virtually to take over the old WinPad market almost overnight. One died so the other could live.

The Tablet PCs relative success also has a lot to do with the effort the Microsoft team made to bring the platform it to market; the company did a better job with the Table PC than with any other business-oriented hardware platform I can recall. Recalling the work it did with the Xbox and the Media Center PC, Microsoft sampled the product out to a significant number of influencers, press and analysts. Based on feedback about the product, Microsoft early next year is expected to offer a comprehensive number of improvements; that makes Microsofts Tablet PC unit one of the most responsive Ive seen in any company or industry I cover.

Over its next two birthdays, the Tablet PC should get bigger (and smaller) as its features begin to permeate the PC market. It will help foster modular computers and as well as a new class of mobile entertainment centers, home automation controllers and wireless displays.

It will face competition from touchscreen laptops that will come to market at a fraction of what it currently costs. And, in a few short years, it should disappear as a class of product—not die, mind you, but grow to encompass laptop computers, becoming one of the sacrificial parents of next-generation mobile personal computer technology.

Tablet PC, congratulations on your first year! Now, go out there and propagate.

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Rob Enderle is the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a company specializing in emerging personal technology.