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Microsoft offers extra-strength tablets

The company adds broader language support to its Smart Display and Tablet PC technologies and announces a manufacturing deal with Packard Bell.

4 min read
Microsoft on Wednesday added broader language support to its Smart Display and Tablet PC technologies and announced a manufacturing deal with Packard Bell.

Packard Bell, NEC's consumer PC division, joins Samsung, ViewSonic and other display makers in manufacturing so-called smart displays. Packard Bell plans to start selling a 10-inch smart display in Europe by the end of the first half of the year.

Microsoft has also greatly expanded language support for tablet PCs, with the beta release of Multilingual User Interface & Recognizer Pack (MUIRP). The final version is scheduled for July release.

Smart Display-based and Tablet PC-based products let consumers and business people access information using a stylus instead of a keyboard and mouse, although there are major functionality differences between the two tabletlike devices.

A smart display is a 10-inch or 15-inch detachable monitor running Microsoft's Windows CE for Smart Displays operating system. Once detached, the smart display connects back to the PC using 802.11 wireless networking for accessing e-mail, surfing the Web or reading documents. Content is accessed using a stylus.

A tablet PC is a portable computer--typically in the shape of a writing slate--running Microsoft's Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. A tablet PC is a fully functioning computer that is accessed either by stylus or keyboard and mouse.

Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft made its Smart Display and Tablet PC announcements at the CeBit trade show in Hannover, Germany.

"Both Smart Display and Tablet PC are gaining momentum as Microsoft refines the products and brings new hardware vendors on board," said Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg. "Adding new vendors helps create choice in the marketplace, and refining features like language options helps drive the product into new markets."

Microsoft on Wednesday also announced the general availability of 10-inch and 15-inch smart displays in Europe. Prices for 10-inch and 15-inch models, respectively, are $1,402 and $1,773 (869 and 1,100 pounds) in the United Kingdom; $1,487 and $1,928 (1,349 and 1,751 euros) in France; and $1,322 and $1,762 (1,201 and 1,601 euros) in Germany.

AboCom Systems, BenQ, First International Computer, Fujitsu, Intel, LG Electronics, National Semiconductor, Philips Consumer Electronics, Tatung, TriGem Computer and Wyse Technology are among the other manufacturers producing smart displays. Microsoft launched the monitor technology in January.

Context analyst Jeremy Davies said Packard Bell's strong "retail PC visibility" could help build consumer and business exposure to smart displays. But "we would expect it to come in cheaper than an 'A' brand."

With regard to MUIRP, Microsoft is expanding Tablet PC's language support in three ways. Microsoft officially launched the technology in November, with the user interface available in English, French, German, Japanese, Korean, simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese.

Tablet PC will now also support Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Spanish, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese and Swedish. Using MUIRP, a technology manager could quickly switch the user interface, including dialog boxes and drop-down menus, from one language to another, according to Microsoft.

Tablet PC's handwriting recognizer also gets new language support for Iberian Spanish, in addition to the already available English, French, German, Japanese, Korean, simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese. As a result, Tablet PC can now convert handwritten Spanish to text.

Additionally, a new speech recognizer adds support for traditional Chinese. The feature already supports English, Japanese and simplified Chinese.

The bulked-up language support comes as Microsoft prepares to put a half-million copies of Office 2003 Beta 2 in the hands of testers and businesses. Office 2003, which is scheduled for summer release, lets Tablet PC users add notations or drawings directly to applications. A new Office product, OneNote, lets people jot down notes or free-form ideas using a stylus.

The Smart Display and Tablet PC refinements could be important as Microsoft seeks to draw more consumer and business interest to the products. Sales of tablet PCs started strong in Europe, accounting in the fourth quarter for 1 percent of all portable sales, according to Context. The market researcher regarded that as a solid start, considering tablet PCs with Microsoft's OS were only available for about half the quarter.

IDC recently revised upward its tablet PC sales predictions for 2003 to 5 percent of the portable market, based on stronger-than-expected early sales.

"Tablet PC seems to be selling quite well according to vendors, (while) smart displays are off to a slower launch," Jupiter Research's Gartenberg said.

Smart displays face two handicaps: the small size of the monitors and the fact that the technology is limited to one display connected to one computer at a time, analysts said.

"The 15-inch size is too small for a primary display and too large to use comfortably on your lap," Gartenberg said.

But Context's Davies sees a much stronger potential market for smart displays in Europe than in the United States.

"We don't have dens, family rooms, spare bedrooms, et cetera, and we don't generally have screens in our kitchens," Davies said of Europeans. "So this could be quite appropriate technology here. On the other hand, for the price, we can achieve the same effect with a full-blown notebook PC with wireless."