Australia got the jump on the rest of the world this week when Microsoft announced its Windows XP Tablet PC Edition operating system with new Tablet products from Acer, Fujitsu, HP, Toshiba and ViewSonic.
The debate has raged for years as to whether Tablet devices will become part of mainstream computing. Dick Brass, Microsoft's vice president of emerging technologies, said the time has come where technology is no longer a restriction. In fact, he predicts that within five years, most portable PCs will be Tablet PCs.
"Some people don't think the market is quite ready yet," he said. "But the folks who doubt that the Tablet is ready will be surprised to discover this will be a real change in client computing."
Changes in processor, screen and battery technology mean the Tablet is a very viable product, and this technology will only get better, he said.
The Tablets announced yesterday come in a variety of forms. Some are pure slates, others are more like convertible notebooks. All of the products use both a keyboard and a stylus pen for data input. The handwriting recognition to text still needs some work, but Brass believes it will suffice for the time being.
"Handwriting recognition has improved. It's not perfect but for most people it's good enough," he said.
Microsoft is instead urging users to "Think Ink"; that is, make use of the Tablet's ability to record handwritten annotations. In fact, one of the few specifications for the Tablets released was that they use an electromagnetic digitiser. Rather than using a touch-screen, the digitiser accepts input from a special pen, which contains an electromagnetic coil. This makes it more accurate because the user's hand will not accidentally interfere with the cursor. It also helps with the durability of the product because the user does not need to make contact with the screen to move the cursor.
According to Brass, the first customers for the technology will be information workers such as road warriors and people who roam within an organisation or campus. That said, Brass believes a number of vertical environments will also prove fertile breeding grounds for the new technology.
"Organisations will be able to deploy the Tablet functionality as part of the XP set, and the application development environment is already familiar," he said. "It's our ISVs and OEMs that create the devices and software that really makes it work."
Most of the products on the market will sell at a price point slightly above an ultra-light notebook with similar specifications. Most of the products announced this week can also be wirelessly enabled.
According to Craig Cameron, Telstra's mobile managing director for wireless data solutions, the largest wireless application being delivered today is access to intranet applications.
"There's a very large number of customers using that right now," Cameron said. "Telstra isn't building specific applications. We are working with our partners -- suppliers and systems integrators."