Bill Gates Says, Take This Tablet

The knottiest task in computing is making a machine as friendly and receptive as a piece of paper. Microsoft thinks it's got the problem beat. The mantra of its hundred-member Tablet PC team is "the simplicity of paper combined with the power of the PC." The prototype looks like a Palm on steroids, with a color screen and the alarming presence of the Windows task bar on the bottom. But using a special digital pen, you can write on it clipboard style, manipulate your scrawled notes like typed text, annotate all your documents and stylus-surf the Web. You can also listen to music, read novels and dictate your own novel. All while maintaining eye contact with your business associates and loved ones. If Microsoft is correct, the Tablet PC, due out in 2002, will not be merely a clever appliance but a revolutionary device that actually replaces the laptop in your briefcase and the PC on your desk. "We want to have everything that's great about the [PC] and extend that, so people have more hours in the day to use it," says the product manager, Alex Loeb.

The dream of a great tablet-based computer predates the PC itself. In 1971--when Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were still taking high-school classes and "portable computer" meant "get the forklift" --Alan Kay of the fabled Xerox PARC research lab sketched out Dynabook. It would be a light, intimate, keyboardless device that ran software based on his innovative Smalltalk language (a precursor of our now ubiquitous mouse-and-point systems). It seemed far out, but in 1972 PARC engineers Chuck Thacker and Butler Lampson asked Kay if they could take a stab at building his "little machine." Considering the state of technology then, it was amazing that they produced the Alto, a desktop computer whose screen looked like, well, a piece of paper. (The Alto was itself the inspiration for 1984's Macintosh, which Kay grudgingly called "the first personal computer good enough to criticize.") Since the idea was to make something not much bigger than a legal pad, the PARC people called the Alto an "interim Dynabook."

Some interim. The history of tablet computers since then has been what one computer scientist described as "a mountain of bones." While portable machines have shrunk impressively from the suitcase-size pioneers in the '80s, attempts to actually create something as friendly as paper--and use a pen as the main input device--have flashed by like flickering silent films outlining busted attempts at human flight. A thing called Go went, Apple's Newton fell to earth and Microsoft's own PenPC was scratched out. "They didn't work, basically," says Bill Gates. "The hardware wasn't good enough, the software wasn't good enough, the batteries weren't good enough, there was no wireless network."

But Microsoft never gave up on the idea, and in the summer of 1999, two of its researchers volunteered to head a design team. Their names? Chuck Thacker and Butler Lampson, the same guys who did the "interim Dynabook" 30 years ago. Both had been recruited to Microsoft by the then research czar Nathan Myhrvold, who calls them "two of the great masters of our era."

Thacker and Lampson had previously tried to do a pen computer for Digital Equipment Corp. called the Lectrice. At 8 pounds it had been more like Moses' tablet than Alan Kay's. But both now thought that with new energy-saving processors like Transmeta's Caruso, improved battery technology and advances in handwriting recognition, the Dynabook dream could finally be realized.

The crucial decision was insisting that the Tablet not be a companion to the computer but a full-featured Windows computer. "That was controversial but sweet reason prevailed," Thacker says. This was not only important as a design principle but was something that worked into Microsoft's overall business strategy: the Tablet was more than a potential smackdown to those who constantly gripe about the company's lack of innovation--it held the promise of establishing Windows as the dominating presence on nontraditional devices. "I envision bringing this into meetings, but also crawling into bed with it at night, reading my e-mail and switching over to a novel," says Loeb. "And when my husband reminds me about our big weekend coming up, I make my reservation online."

The Tablet employs a number of techniques to interpret input without generating absurd errors that become fodder for derisive "Doonesbury" strips. The first is devilishly simple: don't even try to figure out what the user scrawls. The flagship new application of the Tablet, Notebook, handles "digital ink" like text characters, allowing cut, paste and transfer. (Wireless-enabled Tablets might also handle "digital ink instant-messaging.") The next step is supposedly advanced handwriting recognition that allows the Tablet to make good guesses as ink changes to text characters. If that doesn't work, the Tablet, with stereo microphones, will employ the latest in speech-recognition technology.

As with PCs, Microsoft will license Tablet technology to manufacturers. Compaq plans to deliver units for under $2,000. Fujitsu thinks it has a head start because its current pen-based devices are already popular among salespeople in the field. Style mavens will watch out for Sony's interpretation. The first versions, however, will probably weigh in at a slightly bulky 3 pounds, and not deliver the ultra-high-resolution screens that give hardback books a run for their money. Batteries might not last the desired full day before docking. The bet, though, is that enough early adopters will buy to justify the inevitably improved later models. If we get to Tablet 3.0, we may have a killer.

"I do believe that in the end it will be a revolution," says Lampson. "Delivering the idea of the Dynabook means that all your information, and the information from the world around you, won't be limited to your desk, but be available at your fingertips." While equally excited, Thacker is reluctant to declare victory at this early stage. "You can never predict these things," he says. "Like the man said, there's a lot of bones on that mountain."

Last month, though, Thacker took the prototype to the Imagineering research lab at Walt Disney Co., where Alan Kay now heads a team trying to bring a buff update of Smalltalk into the 21st century. "Microsoft's Tablet PC," says Kay, is "the first Dynabook-like computer good enough to criticize." After 30 years, we're finally getting somewhere.