Another Go At The Tablet Pc

Experience the evolution. That's the weirdly appropriate slogan for Microsoft's highly touted tonic for the troubled computer industry, the Tablet PC. During its high-profile launch last Thursday, Bill Gates acknowledged that the laptop-you-can-write-on was only the latest (and presumably, greatest) of many failed pen-based computing iterations. In an act of bravery, he even enumerated a few of those unfit nonsurvivors, including Apple's Newton and the product from the doomed start-up company Go. I cite his courage because those reminders inevitably led observers to speculate whether the Tablet--embodied in no fewer than eight versions by different hardware companies, with more to come--might itself find its way into a diorama in a digital Museum of Natural History.

Fortunately for Microsoft, the evolutionary landscape for pen-based computers is much friendlier than in years previous. The Tablet PC cleverly exploits today's mightier chips, smarter digitizers, sharper screens, cannier software and newly pervasive wireless connectivity. Microsoft made a lot of wise decisions, notably an emphasis on manipulating actual writing instead of slavishly (and clumsily) translating your scribbles into text. The ability to send handwritten e-mail and instant messages also provides a personal touch.

Other innovations come from outside Microsoft. Each different version of the Tablet has its own flavor. You can choose between a sleek "slate" model (in a neat slab-like form factor, transforming to a desktop machine when plugged into a dock) or a "convertible"--a standard clamshell laptop with a swiveling screen that transforms the device to a Tablet.

Nonetheless, this time around the concept isn't quite ready for prime time. There are lots of annoying little quirks: for instance, my finger kept hitting the button on the pen that emulates a mouse click, triggering an unwelcome dialogue box. And the calibration isn't precise enough to easily click tiny boxes like the X's that close windows. Then there are bigger problems. At about three pounds, the machines are standard sub notebook weight, but too heavy for writing pads you're supposed to take everywhere. The machines get hot after a lot of use, making it painful to polish off a page-turning e-book at one sitting. The batteries last only a couple of hours. And sometimes you just have to use handwriting recognition. Microsoft has done the best job yet at this, but even a small error rate can make the effort frustrating. One day, after my third blown password attempt, I began envisioning a new Olympic sport: the Tablet Toss.

Since a Tablet costs $300 to $500 more than a comparable laptop, potential buyers will naturally ask themselves whether they really need to write on their PCs. A pen-based machine, which you can use standing up or while making eye contact, is great for specialized markets--medicine, polling, insurance claims, etc.--but the drawbacks might turn off the target-audience "road warriors" even before they test out Microsoft's promise that the Tablet will double their productivity.

Microsoft's Alexandra Loeb, who heads the Tablet team, argues that people should ask themselves whether the features of a Tablet are, in isolation, worth the extra cash. Her conclusion is a no-brainer "yes." But the features aren't sold separately; they've been integrated into an already-complete system. There is a vital elegance in tools that simply perform the task to which they are best suited--and a clunkiness in devices that try to do everything. Case in point is the convertible version of the Tablet. Yes, it's a real laptop, but when you use it as a tablet it's nearly twice as thick as it should be. You don't have to be Richard Dawkins to figure out that something that dorky is destined to land on evolution's scrap heap.

In fact, the philosophy of the Tablet--which tries to wed the mobility and unobtrusiveness of paper to the full features of a laptop--is competing with another view of computing's future. This "pervasive computing" alternative assumes that any component of a system will be detachable, connected wirelessly. By this vision, the tablet device could be a much cheaper, lighter, battery-friendly add-on to the nearest computer.

Microsoft, of course, is famous for getting things right the third time around, and since Gates is obsessed with pen-computing, chances are that a third generation will address the current problems. In any case, I'm quite eager to experience the Tablet's evolution--as an observer. I can't wait to learn if the Darwinian process can eventually make the Tablet PC a must-have. Or whether the ultimate digital pen device will descend from an altogether different genetic line.