The train is starting to leave the station

One of the most important things to come out of Microsoft for the last couple of years tends to be played down in the press, and sniped at by technology pundits. From my viewpoint the industry’s tendency to ignore this technology is simply bizarre. The thing I’m talking about is the Tablet PC. Before you pooh-pooh my assertion, stay a while.
As developers, we’re constantly on the look-out for changes in the environments with which we work. So we’re interested in news about the next versions of our IDEs, about the various flavors of server technology coming out of Redmond and elsewhere, about Borland’s SDO, about .NET, about web services, about anything that will make our jobs easier.
But what about things which make our users’ lives easier? This is where the Tablet PC fits in. At the moment, the second generation of these machines is starting to appear. They’re faster, they have higher resolution screens and larger hard disks, and don’t cost that much more than normal laptops. Windows XP SP2 has a whole slew of improvements for tablet users, including a kick-ass handwriting recognition subsystem. Users are starting to take notice and new applications are starting to appear that have a richer user experience if they happen to be run on a tablet.
And why are users taking note of tablets? Well, the form factor and usage is the main reason: it’s just plain easier to write on a screen (and have your writing converted into ordinary text) and tap with a pen than using a mouse and keyboard. They’re lighter than the average laptop. It’s more fun to write emails than to type them, and to include quick line drawings as well. It has a more natural input interface.
Do you go to meetings? Do all those people who bring in their laptops and then proceed to type away loudly annoy you? And what happens if someone draws a diagram on the white board? Unless you have a pad of paper as well as your laptop you’re toast. But what about taking in a digital notepad that you write on? Well, it’s much quieter and less obtrusive. People don’t notice (apart from the initial Wow! factor, I suppose) as much as a normal laptop. And at the end of the meeting you already have the notes for the meeting in a form you can use (archive them, email them to Australia, print and distribute them, blog about them).
Using a tablet instead of a laptop in face-to-face interviews (say surveys, gathering information for insurance quotes or for banking-type products, one-on-one teaching, and so on) is less intimidating and more open. Heck, you can even read on-line documentation in the smallest room.
My point here is that I believe the Tablet PC software industry is about to take off, not only in the corporate world, but also for individual users. In the first two years, over a million tablets have been sold; a small number when compared to the overall laptop market, sure, but it’s still impressive. I can foresee a day when the tablet technology is included in laptops as a matter of course, or at least as a low-cost option.
But at present the number of applications that can take advantage of tablets is small. Microsoft obviously have several (OneNote suddenly makes more sense when using a tablet), and the third-party market is growing and it’s wide-open.
I don’t know about you, but this market excites me. My latest work machine is one of the new Toshiba Portege M205s (1.8GHz Pentium M CPU, wireless B & G, 1400*1050 screen resolution, 7200rpm 60Gb disk, 4 hours battery life, 4.5 Lbs). I’m now using a tablet every day, as my one and only development machine. I’m finding out what the issues are with them, how to use digital ink, what applications or components are needed.

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