Tablet PC: Ready for Prime Time?

Does the Tablet PC really merit all of the attention it’s been getting? If you believe Bill Gates, we’re seeing the start of a major change in the direction of computing, a shift as substantial as the adoption of Windows and the graphical user-interface. There’s no denying the appeal of the Tablet PC’s compact design. You just want to pick one up and start scribbling away. And early adopters are saying that to know the Tablet PC is to love it.

Still, if Gates is right, you have plenty of time to decide about the Tablet PC. It took Microsoft five years to get Windows in good enough shape that it could challenge even DOS, the ugly first-generation face of personal computing. And then it took another five years before Windows really knocked DOS out with the launch of Windows 95.

No one expects the Tablet PC to kill off the current generation of notebooks this year or next. And by Gates’ own admission, on first use, many people hate it. They feel lost without a mouse.

I know that I am skeptical about the world of handwriting recognition. I can barely recognize my own handwriting, so what hope will a $2,000 computer have?

But this isn’t just about handwriting recognition. It’s about working with documents in a more natural form. It is a step back to working the way we used to, before a keyboard was more important than a pen. For me, that’s going back a good 14 years.

I haven’t yet had a chance to give it the total immersion the platform demands. Like marriage, if this commitment is going to have a chance to succed, I’ll have to leave behind many routines (and some old friends, too). I’m not ready to do that just yet. Many questions need to be answered first.

For example, how quickly will Microsoft resolve the compatibility issues? Microsoft is introducing a new Digital Ink format that is not compatible with much that’s out there now. So you’re trapped inside some tall Tablet PC-defined walls. Case in point: it would seem that one of the nicer features of the tablet environment is that you can draw with a pen, using graphics software to clean it up, and then quickly post it on a Web site. But it isn’t that easy. Corel’s new Grafigo, which is the early front-runner to be the Tablet PC’s graphics leader, can’t export into a browser-readable format. You need to import your file into Corel Draw first so you can convert it to a JPEG or GIF format.

Microsoft has done a good job at wooing hardware vendors. So far, Dell, Gateway and IBM are not committed, but Toshiba, Acer, HP and many others are shipping product. It is the software publishers and independent developers, however, who need convincing.

The shift to handwriting as a central model for data, away from the data formats created around text, raises questions about control over the platform’s direction that need to be addressed. Microsoft’s core technology is Digital Ink, which controls both the capture of pen strokes and data storage. It remains to be seen how many developers will be willing to work with Microsoft’s format and whether Microsoft will work to ensure that its format supports the established Internet standard for scalable vector graphics, SVG. Microsoft’s own Office applications are at least nine months away from fully embracing the format.

The odds are in Microsoft’s favor. Computing needs a new direction and Tablet PC is swimming with the prevailing tides. The package is very attractive at a time when computing is pervasive, and wireless networks are multiplying. If you’re going to cut the network cord, you may as well throw away the mouse, too.

I’m not ready to make a Tablet PC my main computer right now. But I would not bet against this design turning into the computer I’m using next year or the year after.

Gus Venditto is the editor-in-chief of the and Earthweb networks for Jupitermedia Corp.

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