Jewish World Review Nov. 15, 2002 / 10 Kislev 5763




Microsoft's Tablet PC has promise, problems

By Mark Kellner

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | It is temptingly easy - as some have done with President Bush over the years - to "misunderestimate" the new Tablet PC platform unveiled last week (Nov. 7) by Microsoft Corp. and a raft of hardware manufacturers, including Acer, Fujitsu and Hewlett Packard. In any of its various guises, a Tablet PC runs a special version of the Windows XP operating system and lets users "ink" comments, or entire documents by writing on a screen with a "digital pen." The notes can be transcribed or, perhaps better, saved and indexed electronically. Several programs launched with the unit include the ability to interact with the "digital pen" in creative ways, and an add-on to Microsoft's Office suite allows ink to intrude on Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and Outlook e-mails, among other items.

Many analysts and pundits - including, among others, AnchorDesk.com honcho David Coursey, mobile computing expert Andrew Seybold, and Giga senior fellow Rob Enderle - were a bit dour on surveying the market when we all spoke on Mr. Coursey's C-Net Radio talk show Nov. 8. Mr. Seybold suggested that a few thousand of the machines will sell, principally because the computer makers will go out and buy each other's products. These observers had issues with the quality of Microsoft's "digital ink" technology or with the cost of the Tablet PCs, which does exceed the average notebook PC price by a bit.

May I suggest that, not unlike a certain American chief executive, the Tablet PC could end up surprising a few people along the way? Switching between a traditional notebook PC and a tablet on which one can write, draw, edit and annotate has its advantages; add in some extra applications and features and you've got what may be a winning product in many settings: legal, corporate and even academic.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've used an Acer TravelMate C102Ti, which sells for $2199 at the Acer America Web site (www.acer.com/us). This 3.1 pound computer sports a 10.4-inch (diagonal) screen, a 30 GB hard disk, built-in Ethernet and wireless 802.11b networking, along with a battery life of 3.5 hours. An external CD-ROM drive hooks up via a USB port.

Operated normally, the Acer device features a regular keyboard that may prove a challenge to the ham-handed. But it runs like any other Windows computer, and, with Windows XP, that's not too bad.

However, the release of a couple of hinges and the careful rotation of the display screen sets up an interesting metamorphosis: the Table PC is, it turns out, a tablet on which one can take notes. There's a "Windows Journal" program which lets one title a set of notes, and add pages with a click when a page is full. The notes can be saved (a transcriber does a very good job of translating that "title" into a file name, as well as e-mailed to other participants and indexed for retrieval in the future. Voice annotation is also possible; Microsoft says one large law firm has integrated all these features to make note taking with clients a bit easier.

And when you flip the Acer's screen around, a quick press of two buttons changes the display orientation from landscape to portrait, making it look more like the writing tablet it has become.

Franklin Covey, whose paper-based Franklin Planner is super-popular among the organized set, has an electronic version that is a total stunner. Connecting to Microsoft Outlook for calendaring and address book data, the Fraklin Planner for Tablet PC is the electronic equivalent to paper, and then some. If you're a habitué of the Franklin system, this software could easily be the "killer app" that drives you to a Tablet PC. Details on the software can be found at www.franklincovey.com.

Zinio Systems, Inc. (www.zinio.com) is using its Zinio Reader software to deliver magazines such as Business Week and PC Magazine to Tablet PC users; the reading experience is very much like the print version, without the annoyance of "blow-in" cards.

Another Microsoft innovation lets you "lasso" a part of a Web page, or anything else, and paste it into a document or e-mail, and then annotate it with the pen. Using the pen to dash off e-mails takes a little practice, but it works. The "ink" can be read on regular PCs and other computers including Apple's Macintosh.

It will be interesting to see what other manufacturers do with the Tablet PC platform, and one wishes Apple Computer, which maintains a silence about its future products that would make the Donald Rumsfeld proud, would soon announce a competing device. But these are minor points. After years of trying, the notion of pen computing has arrived in force, and any "misunderestimation" may come back to bite those who pooh-pooh this unique and inviting innovation.

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JWR contributor Mark Kellner has reported on technology for industry newspapers and magazines since 1983, and has been the computer columnist for The Washington Times since 1991.Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002 News World Communications, Inc. Reprinted with permission of The Washington Times. Visit the paper at http://www.washingtontimes.com