Paul Thurrott: Tablet PC seen as future of the notebook computer "Despite slow sales for the first generation of Tablet PCs--Microsoft says just 500,000 of the devices have been sold since November 2002--the software giant is upbeat about the future of what is perhaps its most innovative product. And the company has a right to be excited: Thanks to an improved mobile platform, daring new designs by hardware makers, and a revamped version of the OS that drives Tablet PCs, enterprise customers who avoided the first generation are finally starting to take notice.
In meetings with Microsoft and several of its Tablet PC-making hardware partners at the COMDEX 2003 trade show this week in Las Vegas, I was able to evaluate the second generation Tablet PC, and the outlook is strong. First, second generation devices are based on Intel's powerful and mobile-friendly Centrino platform, which features the Pentium-M microprocessor and about twice as much battery life as the previous generation machines, which were saddled with the lowly Pentium III-M or, worse, Transmeta's anemic Crusoe chip. For customers, this means that new Tablet PCs will achieve the holy grail of better performance and battery life, whereas you can normally achieve one only at the expense of the other.
Second, the new Tablet PCs are benefiting from a year of customer experiences, and hardware makers have responded with innovative new designs, most of which are based on the convertible notebook form factor instead of the nichy slate designs that predominated with the first generation. Microsoft sees the convertible notebook Tablet PC as the future of notebook computers, and the OEMs I spoke with at COMDEX agree. Gateway is even offering a Tablet PC version of its mainstream notebook line that costs just a $100 more than the normal notebook version; at those prices, the Tablet PC is no longer an expensive proposition but rather an economical value-add. And in the coming months, it will be possible to buy a variety of hardware devices, including those with screens that range from 7 inches to 15 inches, satisfying virtually any need.
Third, Microsoft will ship a minor update to the OS that ships with Tablet PCs, dubbed Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2004, early next year. The software giant demonstrated to me new features of this OS version, including an improved Input Panel that makes it easier to input text into forms using Digital Ink and the Tablet PC's stylus. In a bold move, Microsoft will offer this OS update for free to all Tablet PC customers, and I'll be reviewing it soon on the SuperSite for Windows, so stay tuned for more information.
Finally, the Tablet PC platform is finally seeing a groundswell of software support, led by the integrated Digital Ink capabilities of Office 2003, which shipped in October. In the Tablet PC's first generation, most of the software titles developed for the platform were created in-house by companies with special requirements. But as the Tablet PC matures, and Microsoft makes it easier for developers to add Digital Inking features to applications automatically, more and more mainstream applications are coming on board. By the time Longhorn ships in late 2005, the company tells me, Digital Ink capabilities will just be a core feature of the base OS as well."
I think Paul Thurrott's analysis is on target, and expect to see many more Tablet PCs in the future, as prices come down and capabilities, battery life, etc. expand.