The Lonestar State of the Tablet Art

Can the Microsoft tablet due next year overcome the market's false start?

Editors note: Microsoft Corp. is a client of the Enderle Group, the consulting firm headed by Rob Enderle.

LOS ANGELES—At Microsofts Professional Developers Conference here, Microsoft made fun of its Tablet PC Platform in a film with John Sculley (the ex-CEO of Apple who fired Steve Jobs) making snide comments about how "innovative" a small computer you could write on the Tablet PC was. (He was the major backer of the somewhat similar Apple Newton.) Of course, much like Xerox lost its technology to Apple and Microsoft, Apple has lost this race to Microsoft and Palm.

Like any first-generation product, the initial tablet PCs werent perfect. The biggest problem was that key to this platform was a low-powered, high-efficiency processor, and neither Transmeta nor Intel was ready at product launch. This situation provided you a choice between a product that was high-efficiency (Transmeta) and one that was high-performance (Intel), and neither was satisfactory. The Intel-based products overheated and had horrible battery life, and the Transmeta-based products were incredibly slow.

The hardware coming to market now is much better; both Intel and Transmeta have products on the market that do a much better job of balancing performance and battery life. (Right now Intel, with Centrino, has once again emerged as the dominant provider in this space, while Transmetas Efficeon is just coming to market.) However, the problems werent just with the hardware; they were with the software as well. There were few applications that could take advantage of the tablets inking capability; actually writing, instead of typing in fields, was neither particularly easy nor intuitive, and the most successful form factor was the clamshell design which most users simply employed as an overly expensive, limited, laptop.

Lonestar, due in the first half of 2004, is expected to address the shortcomings in the first version (including bug fixes) and showcase the capabilities in Office 2003, as well as other ink-enabled applications, better than the initial offering. While full details on Lonestar have yet to be released, you can anticipate that Microsoft will improve ease of use in general and character recognition in particular using similar methods to what it has done with voice command and speech recognition. (Current tablet owners are expected to be offered an upgrade to the newer platform.) In addition you should anticipate more graphical utilities that work with the pen and, perhaps, a broader set of pen-enabled games.


One of the interesting utilities that is coming out of the labs (but may not make Lonestar) is a utility that will allow you to define a set of parameters and then apply those parameters to a drawing to animate it. For instance, a student could write an equation that defines how a pendulum moves and then draw the pendulum, which would animate according to the equation. (The education market is extremely excited about this possibility.) This sort of capability would do some really interesting things to low-cost modeling.

When you combine Office 2003, which now allows ink to be used in active documents (rather than creating an image of a document that you can mark up); Microsofts One Note (an office accessory that allows you to create a running log book of your activities tied to other Office activities); the new hardware improvements; and Lonestar, you see a fully pen-enabled platform that is vastly more capable than the first-generation product.

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