Take a pen-sensitive screen, add Windows XP Tablet PC Edition and a few nascent pen applications, and what do you call it? A start.

The origins of tablet-based computing follow a circuitous route, beginning with MIT researcher Ivan Sutherland's 1963 thesis on the Sketch Pad, an early pen input device. Before he joined Xerox PARC in the early 1970s, researcher Alan Kay conceived of the Dynabook, a flexible tablet he envisioned as a portable, interactive PC. In 1981, Roger Fidler, now director of the Institute for CyberInformation at Kent State University, put forth a vision of electronic newspapers on a digital tablet. And a wave of pen-based computers in the early 1990s—remember companies like Slate and GRiD?—wasted millions of dollars of venture capital on an unimpressed market. Why? "The proprietary stuff was god-awful expensive," said Gartner's Dulaney. "You couldn't get support, and companies were going out of business right and left."

Given how long it's taken for today's tablet technology to see the light of day, it's reasonable to wonder, why now?

It's tempting to say that with its Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, Microsoft has simply wished the tablet PC into existence in hopes of kickstarting the chicken-or-egg process of providing a platform for which software developers will create applications. But analysts maintain that tablet PCs really represent a number of technological trains arriving at the innovation station on a relatively tight timetable. Advances in flat-panel displays, microprocessors, disk storage and wireless networking all have incrementally contributed to their development. "It's really the continuing evolution of hardware," says Tom Bernhard, director of strategic product planning for Fujitsu PC Corp. "The biggest issue is, in the past, companies that wanted to implement a tablet solution had to do a lot of work, because the operating system didn't offer a complete package." For its part, Microsoft also uses the "e" word when talking about Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, which is built on top of the current version of XP. "It's not this huge learning curve to do something new," says Microsoft's Berschauer. "We call it an evolutionary step."

Are we ready to declare this the whiz-bang generation of tablet PCs? Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future, who's tracked the promise of tablet PCs, thinks not. "Personally, I think all the current devices bigger than PDAs are early-adopter artifacts," he says. Gartner's Dulaney agrees there's still substantial work to be done. "This is generation one of the tablet, and I would never expect generation one of any product to be great."

Ask Your CTO:

Does this equipment have enough power to support our critical mobile applications?

Ask Tablet PC Vendors:

Where are you planning to make near-term changes to the hardware, based on what you've learned to date?

Tell Interested Users:

We're going to need some time to determine where these might be useful in the company.

This article was originally published on 07-17-2003
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