Microsoft dreams up low-cost minitablet

Software giant to show off 6-inch-screen prototype and more at WinHEC in Seattle.

Microsoft on Monday plans to show off pretty much the dream portable computer--a tiny tablet computer as thin as 10 sheets of paper with a camera, a battery that lasts all day and a price of about $800.

The only problem is that it's still several years from reality.

Microsoft commissioned the 6-inch-screen prototype, but still doesn't know exactly when it will be commercially feasible. It will probably come at least a year or two after the arrival of Longhorn, the new version of Windows set to ship at the end of next year.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates will show off the minitablet as part of a speech highlighting plans for the third decade of Windows. The speech will kick off the company's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in Seattle.

The software maker also plans to show off some PCs that are closer to delivery.

One is a notebook with a separate display on the outside of the laptop--good for viewing schedules or e-mails without booting the full systems. Support for such auxiliary displays is one of a number of laptop-related features that Microsoft plans to add with Longhorn.

Gates also plans to show off a next-generation tablet PC from Acer. Unlike other notebooks that swivel to switch between notebook and slate designs, the new Acer model features a keyboard that slides down.

Microsoft said it is starting to see some progress in sales of current tablets, too, following the release of a new version of the Tablet PC operating system last year. In the March-ending quarter, the company saw Tablet PC sales increase 64 percent versus the year earlier.

Although hardware is nice, Microsoft's business is on the other end of the spectrum. So plenty of Gates' attention will be centered on showing off Longhorn. Gates will offer a preview similar to the one Windows chief Jim Allchin gave earlier this month, focusing on the improved searching and graphic display capabilities of the new OS.

In addition, Gates is expected to show off a new "fixed layout" format that will allow Longhorn documents to be saved in an open XML format that can then be printed or viewed without needing the original application that created the document.

The company also plans a splashy launch for the 64-bit desktop and server versions of Windows.

As it tries to get the computer industry ready for Longhorn, Microsoft is launching a program in which computer makers will be able to

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