Microsoft's Tablet PC: A hard pill to swallow?

Bill Gates says he sees the future in his new machine; With many drawbacks, Apple probably shouldn't plan to lose much sleep over it

When Microsoft Corp. Chairman William H. Gates III introduced the Tablet PC on Nov. 7, he declared it the future of computing.

The Tablet PC is a mobile computer a bit smaller than a notebook personal computer. It’s distinguishing feature is a screen that you can write on with a stylus like a personal digital assistant, or PDA.

As Windows-driven devices, Tablet PCs are incompatible with Apple Computer Inc.’s Macintosh except for the limited file-sharing capabilities the Mac already has with Windows.

And while Gates may think the Tablet PC will set the standard for the future, a host of drawbacks most likely will prevent the computer from posing a significant threat to Mac's platform any time soon.

Several hardware vendors -- including Acer Inc., Toshiba Corp., Hewlett-Packard Corp. and Fujitsu Ltd. -- have announced variations of the Tablet PC, costing from $1,699 to $2,499. Most models include a keyboard that either swivels or detaches -- though some, like the Fujitsu ST4000, are just an electronic slate.

Brett Miller, an analyst with A.G. Edwards & Sons Inc. in St. Louis who covers the computer industry, thinks the Tablet PC’s steep price will limit its initial appeal.

"For $1,000, you can get a nice laptop," Miller said. "Why pay more for a tablet?" He noted that you can add a PDA to the mix and still spend less than you would on a Tablet PC.

All the Tablet PCs use a version of Microsoft’s Windows XP operating system designed for "pen computing." This special version of Windows has additional software that enables a user to enter written notes or drawings into programs with a stylus on the screen.

Because it’s otherwise a standard version of XP, users also can run any regular Windows program on a Tablet PC.

But try as Microsoft might to pitch the Tablet PC as an entirely new device, it’s essentially a notebook PC with pen-based input capabilities, which places it in an arena of computing littered with spectacular failures, most memorably Apple’s Newton.

Products that incorporate some form of "pen computing" date back nearly 10 years. Apple started the race for a small, stylus-operated hand-held computer in early 1992, when it said that it was working on such a device.

That was more than a year before the Newton was introduced.

Having foolishly alerted its competitors, Apple cut corners on the Newton’s development to get the product on the market. So when the Newton was launched in August 1993, its handwriting recognition had serious problems -- converting many words to gibberish.

Worse, Apple’s marketing department had hyped the feature, creating unrealistic expectations. The Newton, as a result, became the butt of jokes -- including an obvious slap from the comic strip "Doonesbury" -- rather than the technological triumph it was touted to be.

Newton’s handwriting recognition vastly improved in late 1995, with a major upgrade to its software -- but by then, the damage had been done.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs killed the money-losing Newton in February 1998, ostensibly to refocus the then-struggling company solely on the Mac.

Newton’s failure has haunted pen-based computing ever since, with no one having completely tamed the handwriting-recognition beast.

Palm’s more simplified approach to handwriting recognition, called Graffiti, has helped it dominate the PDA market.

According to the latest figures from Gartner Dataquest Inc., a research firm based in Stamford, Conn., the Palm OS holds a 50.2 percent market share, with Microsoft’s Pocket PC claiming 28.3 percent and the remainder split among several others.

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