Comdex: Gates unveils Tablet PC prototypes

LAS VEGAS -- If the heap of new products that Microsoft Corp. showed here yesterday is any indication of the future of computing, the desktop PC is old news.

In a keynote speech opening the Comdex/Fall 2001 trade show, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates unveiled prototypes of the portable Tablet PC, which will run on a specialized version of the company's new operating system called Windows XP Tablet PC Edition.

Gates demonstrated Tablet PC prototypes from hardware makers including Compaq Computer Corp. and Acer Inc. and ran a variety of new applications, including one called Journal that blends the company's Word software with handwriting-recognition capabilities.

Gates pledged that the portable devices, due out next year, would become the most popular form of the PC within five years.

"Next year, a lot of people in the audience will be taking notes with those tablet PCs," he predicted.

Facing a wall of camera-clicking journalists in a near-filled arena of the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, he also showed a preview of the Xbox video game console and demonstrated a new Web service built on Microsoft's .Net technology.

Working prototype of Microsoft's Tablet PC

Working prototype of Microsoft's

Tablet PC

Against the backdrop of an uncertain economy and declining PC sales, Gates painted a bright future for technology in which he said the most impressive advances have yet to come. Faster PC chips and improved network connections, combined with widespread use of voice and handwriting recognition, will allow people to work faster and more efficiently, he said.

"In the decade ahead, I can predict we will provide over twice the productivity improvements that we did during the '90s," he said.

Some of those improvements will come via a new version of Office XP, Microsoft's suite of productivity applications, which Gates said will be available in time for the Tablet PC's launch next year. The new version will include the ability to write handwritten notes in applications like Outlook and Word and to edit those notes as if they were digital text.

Gates also showed the handwriting feature, or "ink" as he called it, in a future version of Windows Messenger that lets users exchange notes or sketches using the company's instant-messaging software. "The use of ink and voice can be explosive -- in three or four years, that should be absolutely commonplace," he said.

Productivity improvements will also come from Web services, which are programs that let disparate business applications "talk" to one another over the Internet using standards like XML, claimed Gates. Such software, which is also being developed by Microsoft rivals such as Sun Microsystems Inc., will allow buyers and sellers to find one another more easily and provide companies with a wider choice of business partners, he said.

Robyn Pierce of Microsoft's .Net group showed how Web services can be combined with Microsoft's Passport authentication service and an Excel spreadsheet to make filing expense reports easier. She showed how the application could trawl the Internet for an employee's recent credit card transactions and cell phone calls and then import the information to the spreadsheet.

The program can also add XML tags to outgoing mail, so the employee could e-mail the expense report to company headquarters, where back-end software would process it automatically, she said. Next month, Microsoft plans to release a Web services tool kit for Microsoft Office that will allow businesses to experiment with adding functionality like this to Microsoft applications, Pierce said.

"XML Web services is the key standard for the decade ahead," Gates said. "That's the standard necessary to treat the Internet as a programming environment."

For consumers, Gates showed off the company's Xbox video game console, due to be launched Thursday. Seamus Blackley of Microsoft's Xbox group showed games including Dead or Alive 3, which will be available at launch, and NFL Fever 2002, which he called "a football game so real, you feel like you need to take a shower afterwards."

He showed how the Xbox lets users replay events in slow motion, freeze the action and view it from multiple angles. The console also has a parental control system that can block games that carry an adult rating -- something Sony Corp.'s PlayStation 2 offers only for movies, according to Blackley. Xbox also lets users record their own music on the machine and play it as a background to a video game.

Some users who watched the speech were impressed with what they saw. Thomas Lancaster, an employee at Tacoma, Wash.-based Larson Dodge, said he'd willingly trade his desktop PC for a Tablet PC. "It's going to make interacting in the office more fluid," he said.

Others were more skeptical. As Microsoft broadens its reach beyond PCs and into new markets, it runs the risk of diluting the quality of its products, said Daniel Herzka, president of software consulting company Herzka Associates in East Hills, N.Y. "They won't do the best job if they don't have a specialty," Herzka said.

Elsewhere in the home, wireless networks will allow all kinds of content, including digital music and videos, to be beamed around the house and accessed from any room, according to Gates.

"Wireless networking, advanced PCs, next-generation set-top boxes and next-generation video games will come together in a synergistic way as they connect to services on the Internet like MSN," he said.

Challenges include improving security, ensuring ease of use and making faster Internet pipes available to all homes, said Gates.

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