Can a new type of device topple the mighty PC? Bill Gates apparently thinks so.
The Microsoft chairman has predicted that the Tablet PC, which will formally be launched on November 7, will account for the majority of PC sales within five years. Success for the new device is far from assured, however, and time will tell whether a change in the way we use computers is in our midst, analysts and industry insiders said.
When the software giant pulls the covers off of its Windows XP Tablet PC Edition operating system, which will power the new device, there will be few surprises in store for end users. The pen-based operating system and prototype Tablet PC devices have been in the media spotlight for the past year, and the specifications and features of many devices are already well known.
The only real question that remains is whether Gates' prediction will come true, or if the Tablet PC will go down in history as another unsuccessful attempt by the software company to drag pen-based computing from its niche vertical markets, such as hospitals and delivery companies, and into the mainstream.
Despite Microsoft's best efforts to push the Tablet PC as the future of computing, not everyone in the industry is convinced that success is guaranteed. "I think it is really unknown at this point how big the market is," said Michael Dell, CEO of Dell Computer, which so far has no plans to ship a Tablet PC device of its own.
Others are more optimistic. "I think tablets will be a very compelling usage model," said Anand Chandrasekher, vice president and co-general manager of Intel's Mobile Platforms Group. "Over time, it is my expectation that the capabilities of tablets will permeate all form factors in the mobile market."
Part of the reason why previous attempts to bring pen-based computing to the masses failed was limited processing power. Without enough horsepower for "active" pen support, which allows users to input information such as handwriting, makers of pen-based computers instead turned to "passive" support, which lets users conduct simpler tasks, such as pushing buttons.
With the Tablet PC's active pen capabilities, the company is hoping that handwritten data, which it calls ink, will become a primary data type. Ink allows users to jot down notes on their Tablet PCs using applications like Microsoft Journal or Word 2002 and then manipulate that data in several ways, such as cutting and pasting between different applications or searching for specific keywords.
Microsoft has been careful not to overstate the Tablet PC's handwriting recognition capabilities though, and has been quick to point out that if users can't read their own writing at times, a computer is not going to able to recognise it either.
One problem with Microsoft's efforts to push the adoption of ink is that only a few third-party software vendors, including SAP and Corel, have so far announced plans to support the Tablet PC. In addition, the first version of the Tablet PC will only offer support for English, German, French, Korean, Japanese and Chinese, which means that many users won't initially have access to Tablet PC in their native languages.
"The lack of language support will definitely slow down tremendously the broad market," said Louis Jouanny, vice president of marketing and strategic development for the Mobile Pen PC Division at Fujitsu Siemens Computers.
Despite limited language support and limited backing from third-party software makers, Microsoft is pushing hard to see the Tablet PC become a success. With its vast reserves of cash and industry clout, its attempts to popularise pen-based computers with mainstream users may yet pay off.