When Microsoft (MSFT) Tablet PC made its debut last year, it seemed a bit like a solution in search of a problem. Notebook computers and slates that let you enter data in handwriting and store it either as "digital ink" or convert it to text had a big "wow" factor, but it was hard to see their practicality outside of some specialized markets. While I still think it will be a couple of years before Tablets become truly mainstream products, new hardware and software show glimmers of an interesting future.
The big hardware news is the release of a low-voltage version of Intel (INTC)'s already power-thrifty Pentium M processor. I tried a Gateway (GTW)-branded version of the Motion Computing M1300 Tablet, which features about a 15% boost in battery life, to a bit more than three hours -- an improvement, but still not enough -- and a considerable bump in speed. Handwriting recognition and Tablets' heavy use of graphics demand a lot from a processor, and the first models were sluggish. Expect new Pentium M-based Tablets this year from Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) Fujitsu (FJTSY) Toshiba (TOSBF) Acer, and Sharp (SHCAY).
The software is a bigger leap. MindManager 2002 from Mindjet shows how far Microsoft's Tablet version of Windows falls short of its potential. MindManager is a brainstorming program that lets you create graphical maps of ideas or a plan. Say, for example, that you're creating a "mind map," a sort of free-form outline, for the marketing of a new product. When you realize you need a new section for a product brochure, a quick horizontal flick of the pen at the end of an existing section of the outline creates a new action item. Similar "gestures" with the pen let you accomplish tasks such as deleting and moving sections of the map without jumping all over the screen to click on icons and menu choices. The program offers an easy way to convert some or all of your handwritten entries to text. It takes a while to learn the gestures, but once you do, Tablet use becomes much more efficient.
Microsoft itself shows some real progress in a new application called OneNote, an add-on to Office 2003, which is due out this fall. OneNote is a note-taking application that lets you combine handwritten or typed notes with drawings, pasted-in pictures, Web pages, or just about any other sort of data. Handwritten notes can be converted to text or left as ink.
One of the most interesting features of OneNote is its integration with the Tablet's built-in voice recorder. Any notes you take while recording are automatically linked to the recorder's time code. If you later click on the icon that represents a loudspeaker next to the entry, you immediately jump to the point in the recording where the note was made. This makes your notes an on-the-fly index to the audio, a feature that by itself could sell a lot of Tablets to lawyers and journalists.
Unfortunately, the rest of Office 2003 doesn't handle the Tablet nearly as well. Word makes it reasonably easy to include a sketch or handwritten comment in a document. But the pen integration in Outlook remains poor -- you cannot, for example, add a handwritten note to a message or scribble a quick appointment in the Outlook calendar. If you're using the pen, you must use Microsoft's clumsy "text input panel" to convert your handwriting to text or tap away using an on-screen keyboard.
Windows, on its own, insists on treating the pen as little more than a mouse. Smarter software would have the sense to at least open the text-input panel when text entry is clearly required, but now you have to do it manually. And the text-input panel stays glued to the bottom of the screen instead of appearing near to where text is being entered. Some improvements to the Tablet software are due with a Windows XP service pack next year, but a real overhaul won't come until the "Longhorn" version of Windows arrives in 2005.
Bill Gates likes to call the tablet the future of personal computing. He may be right, but Microsoft could be doing a lot more to make it happen. By Stephen H. Wildstrom