Will Tablet Revolutionise Computing

Updated: Oct 18 2002, 05:30am hrs
Microsoft is formally launching its Tablet personal computer (PC) on November 7, 2002. Basically, it is a launch of a slew of hardware products built by Microsoft partners (Hewlett-Packard, Fujitsu, Sony, Toshiba, Motion Computing, Acer and Via) that run on Windows XP operating system built specially for Tablet computers. In terms of look and feel, a Tablet PC will have a slate-like form factor. It would be a simple slate with about 10 diagonal liquid crystal display (LCD); a combo would look like a notebook computer whose display unit can optionally be swivelled to take the shape of a slate. Typically, the Tablet would be far more intuitive it would take more natural input, that is, handwriting and speech.

Microsoft is using years of research to make computing more natural. The handwriting is far superior to graffiti type handwriting that Palm computing perfected. The Tablet would go far beyond graffiti writing; it would enable users to write to the machine using the surface of the tablet. The Tablet accomplishes this using a glass surface that is tailor-made for writing not too smooth to put off serious writers and not too rough to make writing a struggle. Also, the user has the option of using handwriting as a genuine data type that can be manipulated using a recognition engine for English and other Anglo-Saxon characters, numerals and special symbols. Built on Unicode, the Tablet would have significant support for Asian characters Chinese, Japanese and, of course, Indian.

The Tablet PC software leverages the significant advances made in pen computing in the nineties to utilise the power of digital ink. By design, the Tablet takes mobility to the next stage by integrating Wi-Fi (Wireless Fidelity/IEEE 802.11b Standard) wireless LAN along with many choices for wireline connectivity {Live Wire high-speed disk connectivity (IEEE 1394)}, Universal Serial Bus (USB 2.0) and of course Ethernet and dial-up connectivity. By improving the display and readability (thanks to ClearType font), the Tablet will give the experience of natural reading (akin to reading off a sheet of paper). By dynamically switching off the orientation landscape for presentation and portrait for documents, the Tablet takes naturalness to a higher level. Using a speech recognition engine built into the operating system, it also scores high points in terms of intuitive user interface. And by the use of improved battery technology and power management, it moves towards a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) like power-connection-free hours (10-12) in place of two-four hours that are common in notebook computers.

In short, the Tablet combines the functionality of the PC with the convenience of a PDA and takes mobility to a higher level. Its always on nature, naturalness of the input (slate-like writing and speech recognition) and output (paper-like reading and text-to-speech), makes it an ideal candidate for mobile workers. A special feature provides for an electronic journal and even a sticky note feature (equivalent of Stick It notes from 3M).

The Tablet is not entirely new. As a device to digitise drawings, it has been in use for decades. Pen computing is not new either the well-known pen manufacturer Cross has been selling solutions over the past three to four years; it had just not entered the mainstream. A number of attempts at slate PC (including Microsofts earlier attempt) failed previously.

Yet, the Tablet PC has a chance of real success due to the following reasons notebook computers are growing faster than desktop computers; Wi-Fi is clearly gaining momentum; mobility of workers is high; Digital Ink technology and speech technology have matured over the past one year; and, Asian markets are driving global information technology growth.

Hewlett-Packard and Acer have committed their resources to the Tablet; IBM has not. Interestingly, Dell has not committed to the Tablet PC launch on November 7, though a set of senior executives from Dell (including the former chief of Dell Online) have floated a new company, Motion Computing, and plan to launch their own version on the day of the launch. Naturally, the scene is hotting up.

Motorola launched cellular phones in the seventies. IBM launched IBM PC in the eighties. Palm Organiser was launched in the nineties. All three of them have been revolutionary products debuting roughly once in a decade. Will the Tablet PC of 2002 join this Ivy League Watch out!

(The author is director of the Indian Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at askss@iiitb.ac.in)