YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Tech 101 | PC Focus

If You're Sick of Your Laptop, Take a Tablet

November 23, 2000|LAWRENCE J. MAGID |

At his Comdex keynote address last week, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates showed off a prototype of a portable PC that looks nothing like an ordinary laptop. Instead, it's shaped like a writing tablet. "There's a radical step that can be taken," Gates told the crowd of 12,000 computer industry professionals. "It's one of the most amazing projects we've ever done."

Gates was not alone. As the PC evolves, many of its traditional functions are spinning off into devices that promise to be more portable and easier to use. In fact, the transformation of the PC was a major theme at Comdex, the largest computer trade show in North America.

The Tablet PC that Gates showed weighs about 3 pounds and is about 2 inches thick. Its liquid-crystal display has about the same dimensions as a standard sheet of paper. If you plug in a keyboard and mouse to its USB ports, it's the functional equivalent of a notebook PC. But without those appendages, it becomes a portable writing instrument, Web browser and information appliance handy for places where a regular PC might be awkward.

The device, demonstrated by Microsoft software engineer Bert Keely, ran a pre-release copy of the next generation of Microsoft's consumer operating system, code-named "Whistler," which--unlike Windows ME and Windows 98--is based on the same code as the more robust Windows 2000.

Using a stylus, the user can take handwritten notes in what's called "digital ink." There is nothing new about the ability of a hand-held device to accept handwriting. But the software on this machine will let users edit and even enhance handwritten notes much like how we now edit and enhance typed text. You can, for example, copy and paste handwriting, open up space so you can insert words, delete parts of handwritten sentences and, in what was the most impressive demonstration of the night, add bold or italics to handwriting.

Keely didn't demonstrate handwriting recognition--the machine's ability to turn handwriting into computer text--but Gates, in an informal conversation after his speech, said, "We are doing super-aggressive recognition." Handwriting recognition, he added, "is not perfect, but it's so much better than it was five or six years ago."

Microsoft is using handwriting recognition that it developed internally as well as technology from ParaGraph ( ParaGraph developed the almost laughable handwriting recognition software that Apple used in its ill-fated Newton back in 1993. But, said Gates, "it turns out that this is an area where experience is learning."

While Microsoft was showing off a prototype with an unspecified price and specifications that's not likely to be on store shelves for at least a year or two, a Southern California company was at Comdex demonstrating a somewhat similar machine that will be available early next year. Aqcess Technologies ( will soon release the Qbe Vivo, a smaller, lighter and cheaper version of the "Qbe Original" tablet PC already on the market.

The Vivo, which will start at $1,799, is a 9-by-12-by-1.9-inch tablet equipped with a choice of processors. Memory ranges from 64 megabytes to 320 MB with a hard drive ranging from 5 gigabytes to 20 GB. It can be configured with Windows ME or Windows 2000.

Microsoft allowed me to hold--but not actually use--its prototype. But Aqcess Chief Executive Jon-Erik Prichard let me play with the Vivo. The machine comes with ParaGraph handwriting-recognition software as well as speech-recognition software. There are two USB ports that allow users to connect any USB keyboard and mouse, but for an additional $299, users can buy a docking station with a keyboard and mouse, four more USB ports and other connectors.

Despite Microsoft's endorsement, there is no guarantee that users will flock to tablets. Unlike Palm organizers or Pocket PCs, the devices I've seen are far too big to lug around all day and lack a built-in keyboard. Yet they could be a boon for people who spend a lot of time in meetings or on the road and want a single device to take notes, review documents and surf the Web.


Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. weekdays on the KNX-AM (1070) Technology Hour.

Los Angeles Times Articles