Tiresome Tablets

Exactly one year ago at Comdex, the world's richest fan of the Tablet PC was onstage flogging this $2,000 Etch-A-Sketch-like device for the second year in a row. Bill Gates must be hoping that the third time's the charm, because he's back at Comdex this week touting the tablet yet again.

The Microsoft chairman also scored some mass-market product publicity with a recent appearance on NBC's Today show.

He plowed through a demo and droned on about the virtues of transforming handwriting into searchable text, until show host Katie Couric chirped on cue, "Supercool, Bill!"

So, customers must be clamoring for this latest evolution of the PC. This must be the notebook of the future, right?

Don't count on it.

In an exclusive online survey, 1,150 notebook PC users expressed a collective yawn over the key differentiators of the Tablet PC -- the much-touted handwriting-recognition and noncomputing capabilities such as paging. They scored both of those features at the rock bottom of the wish list. (See the full results of the survey.)

Now, most of us wouldn't admit this, but I'll bet 90% of what we scribble on notebook paper during meetings isn't worth saving. It's just busywork business behavior to sit there nodding thoughtfully and taking a few notes. Makes you look like you're paying attention. Who needs an expensive toy PC to do that?

What users really want from notebook PCs are sharper, brighter displays, longer battery life and processing power on steroids, our survey shows. All of which tells me that the overpriced Tablet PC is destined to join the long list of Inspector Gadget technologies searching in vain for market success.

Oh, it will find some niche markets in a few vertical industries, and even a cadre of devotees. But it's more of a blast from the past than a harbinger of the future. After all, the first commercial tablet computer made its debut in 1989 with the very forgettable GridPad, followed a few years later by Apple's Newton MessagePad.

But if Son of Etch-A-Sketch isn't the future of notebooks, what is? That's where things get interesting, as you'll see in our special report on hardware's future.

In "Future of the Notebook", reporters Gary H. Anthes and Bob Brewin point out that we can count on notebook processor power to double every two years while disks continue to shrink and screens brighten up with the advent of organic LED displays. Mobile-device sizes will be all over the map. And in its research labs, IBM is already playing with materials that within a few years will replace the heavy, inflexible glass substrate in those displays, making screens amazingly bendable.

By 2005, most mobile computers will have wireless LAN access built in. Security protections will keep moving from unreliable software into locked-down hardware, and central IT departments will be able to reach out and destroy stolen information before it does the bad guys any good. All that pointing and clicking we do now with the mouse will give way to touch pads that respond to subtle hand movements. We'll carry the contents of our hard drives in multiple-gigabyte flash memory devices, hanging off key chains or adorning us as jewelry. Supercool, as Katie would say.

In the meantime, I've got another meeting to attend. Better grab that 89-cent pad of paper and take a few notes.

Maryfran Johnson is editor in chief of Computerworld. You can contact her at


Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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