It is not much more than a year ago, in November 2002, that Microsoft launched the Tablet PC. With a rotatable touch-sensitive screen, a pen-enabled version of Windows, handwriting recognition and applications designed to use written annotations, it got a warm reception.
Now things don't look quite so exciting, with Microsoft blamed for the slow take-off. However, there are signs of life with new applications and users coming along.
Sales worse than expected
Of the PC manufacturers, Acer tied its colours most firmly to the mast, predicting that tablets would be 20 percent of its laptop sales by the end of 2003. Reviews were positive, and vendors including HP and Fujitsu made big efforts. 72,000 tablets were sold by the end of 2002, according to reports, by IDC.
Most analysts were cautious, with Gartner predicting tablets would make up 1.2 percent of world notebook sales, racking up 425,000 in the first year. And Dell, IBM and Sony stayed clear of the Tablet.
Wisely so, it seems because results so far have been worse than anyone expected. Tablets only made seven percent of Acer's sales and overall the products were less than one percent of the PC market, according to analysts Canalys, who made a study of the subject.
Discussion at places like Slashdottends to focus on the problems with early systems, such as short battery life and regular crashes. However, these were teething troubles, which appeared worse than they were because the Tablet's launch coincided with the arrival of Intel's Centrino which raised users' expectations of longer lasting batteries.
Devices such as the Motion M1300 put Centrino processors in a Tablet, and pretty much drew a line under that discussion.
Microsoft held it back
The real problem, it is generally agreed, is Microsoft's attitude to the tablet. By pricing the operating system at a premium, the company has ensured that it remains a niche product.
"Microsoft still isn't doing enough to help Tablet PC vendors - particularly in Europe," said Canalys director and senior analyst Chris Jones, in November 2003. "Rather than pricing the Tablet PC OS at a premium, adding to the vendors' costs and the end-user price, it should be doing the opposite: subsidising the vendors to help them get the market up and running."
The criticism is well-founded. Despite giving the Tablet PC a prime place at a strategy event in November, Microsoft has shown little sign of changing its Tablet strategy.
During the lifetime of the tablet, Microsoft has proposed and dropped the Smart Display, a bizarre removable screen with its own operating system intended to partner with a desktop machine. As with the Tablet, Microsoft's pricing was blamed for the failure of Smart Displays - the devices required an extra Windows licence.
The result of Microsoft's attitude has been to keep tablets pricey and distinct from the mainstream. The devices come out at around £2000, when a decent laptop can be had for much less. And the Tablet PC software is seen as something different from XP Pro, so in a corporate environment that means an extra support burden. Even the replacement pens are expensive.
What about applications?
Against this gloom there are some positive signs. There have been a trickle of pretty impressive applications, although most of them are pretty niche-y.
Microsoft's PDC developer event in October, which should have had a whole new generation of applications, had a couple of leading-edge demos: MathPad, an ink-enabled maths application that plots graphs from handwritten equations, and MagicPaper, which plots three-dimensional objects from hand-drawings. Other applications include stock tracking and point-of-sale.
Applications that are actually available include a Tablet PC version of KeyLogix' ActiveDocs documentation automation software, which aims to change handwritten notes into Microsoft Office XP-based documents, so workers can keep up with paperwork while on the move. Also, Wavefront's Alias SketchBook Pro is designed to provide co-operative sketchbooks for visual collaboration.
However, for most people, the point of the tablet is the ability to take notes, and Microsoft's OneNote application does all this. In a sense, OneNote should be all the applications that the tablet requires to get a start.
And how about users?
By now, though, the thing we most need to see are Tablet PC users. To be fair there are signs of life. Liverpool city council is to spend £80,000 giving social workers tablets to allow them to do paperwork on the move. The tablets also include voice recognition software for form filling.
“These tablets enable staff to cut through red tape and needless bureaucracy so that they can spend more time with clients," said councillor Jeremy Chowings, executive member for health and social care. “They will make life easier for social workers and free them from form-filling and pen pushing."
For most of us, the tablet is still an expensive curiosity, but the laptop PC itself was once in that position. However, in the long term, the idea of writing on a screen is too good not to take off in some form.
If Microsoft's Tablet doesn't take off, it will contribute to an eventual tablet that will. However, only a tablet that is part of the mainstream of computing can really succeed and it is yet to be seen whether Microsoft can put its Tablet into that position.