Microsofts Tablet PC Odyssey

Opinion: Despite the hype, electronic books and higher-powered small devices are years away from being ubiquitous.

Whats smaller than a Tablet PC but larger than a Pocket PC? I dont know, at least not for sure, but I am expecting Bill Gates to clue me in real soon.

My colleague, Mary Jo Foley, has been hearing rumors of a new small form factor device thats been making the rounds at Microsoft.

That alone is not reason enough to expect an announcement.

Microsoft has a prototype of most anything you can describe—and some things that defy description—stashed somewhere on the Redmond campus.

But, a few things make this rumor more interesting: One is a hint from Bill himself, in a TV interview, that something new is coming.

The second is that the annual WinHEC developers conference is coming later this month.

/zimages/5/28571.gifRead more here about recent buzz surrounding the Tablet PC.

And finally, I just received an invitation to attend Microsofts MEDC (Mobile and Embedded DevCon) in Las Vegas, where Bill will give the keynote May 9.

If there really is a new form factor, this will be the continuation of Microsofts long quest to create "more personal" personal computers.

The newest version is supposed to be a slate device, roughly book-sized (6 inches by 8 inches).

According to Foleys sources, its intended as a combination Pocket PC and electronic book reader with some Tablet PC "goodness" mixed in as well.

Make these devices inexpensive enough and students could do electronic coursework on them.

Add wireless and students could submit assignments, consult electronic libraries and IM friends about after-school gang activities. Or pep rallies, perhaps.

Or perhaps were just talking about Microsoft building a smaller form factor for Tablet PC applications, especially for field service reps and medical data input and retrieval.

Thats a possibility, though I wonder how much of the Tablet PC stack a smaller, lower-power device could run.

My bet is the electronics will look more like a Pocket PC device than a Pentium-based tablet.

/zimages/5/28571.gifTo read more about physicians using handheld computers, click here.

A friend of mine recently compared the Tablet PC to thin clients, both of which he said have been promoted as "just around the corner" since seemingly forever, but have yet to become firmly established.

"But there doesnt seem to be a lot of there there," he lamented.

"Eventually, there will be a lot of there there, but theres no there now," I agreed, not really thinking about what I was saying and drawing a chuckle from the other people on the conference call.

While Microsoft hasnt been much of a thin client proponent, I give them credit for what theyve done with Tablet PC and mobile devices.

Getting a platform right requires an incredible alignment of the technological constellations: from the processor, to the display, to the wireless support, and battery life—all play critical roles in getting a hardware platform that will have a chance with customers and developers.

The operating system, voice and handwriting recognition performance, networking, developer tools and other software components must come together as well.

Microsoft has spent hundreds of millions of dollars (my estimate) to push all these things forward.

While substantial progress has been made, more is still required.

No doubt this "mystery device" that Bill Gates may or may not unveil in Las Vegas will draw guffaws from some for not being advanced enough. And it wont be advanced enough. Count on it.

However, those of us who look forward to seeing this "more personal" technology head mainstream will note the progress—the creation of more "there," if you will.

And we will wonder how much longer it will take.

The soon-to-be billion-dollar question is: When will electronic books and higher-powered small devices be ready for mass-market consumption?

My best is were talking five years before Tablet PC features will be an expected part of a notebook computer.

In the meantime, Microsoft will solidify control of the corporate PDA market (such as it is) and make only a little progress in mobile handsets.

I am talking product sales volumes, not technology.

Lets tack on another five years before students routinely do their assignments on personal e-book slate computers.

By that time, Microsofts other mobile computer bets will have either paid off or the company will have moved on.

Contributing Editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers.