Tablet PC: 21st century notepad?

Microsoft's Tablet PC is a hit with some attendees of the TechXNY conference--but most are sticking with their keyboards for now.

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NEW YORK--Attendees were impressed with Microsoft's Tablet PC--one of the first mainstream computers to prominently feature handwriting input--but most are sticking with their keyboards for now.

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"I write with a stylus for short notes and use a keyboard when I do something longer, like at meetings," said David Dempsey, a senior advisor at New York-based investment firm Bentley Associates. Dempsey uses a DaVinci PDA made by Royal Consumer Information Products, a division of Italian company Olivetti Tecnost.

The Tablet PC, which will hit shelves Nov. 7, is Microsoft's venture into the world of natural interfaces. Computer manufacturers for years have tried to popularize new data transfer techniques such as handwriting recognition, voice command and fingerprint authentication. The processing power and software base have now developed to the level that a standard computer can fairly smoothly absorb written words.

With its electromagnetic pen, touch screen and software that recognizes letters written on a screen, the Tablet PC hopes to be the notepad of the 21st century. Ten years of research and the analysis of millions of handwriting samples went into the final product, said a Microsoft representative.

During that time, though, the world acclimated to the keyboard. Consumers are impressed--but maybe not enough to switch just yet.

Peggy Yocher, an attendee of PC Expo who declined to give her company affiliation, said she has been using CrossPad, a handwriting-recognition system designed by Cross, for about three years--but she still likes to use a keyboard for longer work.

Handheld manufacturers are finding the same results. Handspring Chief Operating Officer Ed Colligan said recently that he had been surprised to find consumers preferred entering information via keyboard, rather than using Palm's Graffiti technology. Colligan said the company would therefore focus on keyboard-based products going forward, though most would have the ability to download software for writing.

Sony, which makes Clie handheld devices, is also paying more attention to keyboards. Its newest Clies, the PEG-NR70 and the PEG-NR70V, on display at PC Expo, had a small keyboard similar to that of Research In Motion's BlackBerry device.

Marc Capichioni, a network administrator for LowestLoan, a Valhalla, N.Y.-based mortgage company, said he already had a vision of how the Tablet PC could improve productivity at his company: mortgage salespeople could take the devices to borrowers' homes and use them to calculate different interest-rate scenarios and then collect the customers' signatures.

Capichioni said he doubts he would revert to a keyboard if he had a Tablet PC.

Although commercial acceptance remains uncertain, the company did its homework, asserted Jeff Raikes, group vice president at Microsoft. The pen can act like a mouse when hovering over a Tablet PC. When the pen touches the screen, it acts like an ink pen.

The pens can read 133 samples of data per second, as opposed to the 40 samples of data per second read by a normal mouse. Microsoft worked in conjunction with hardware makers to come up with the special functions that Tablet PCs would enable.

The pens and "digitizers" that underlay the screens and receive signals from the pens are made primarily by FinePoint Innovations and Wacom Technology, which then sell them to tablet PC makers like Fujitsu. FinePoint and Wacom also make the "digitizers" that underlay the Tablet PCs' screens and receive the pens' signals. The digitizers also push the price of the Tablet PC to around $150 more than a similarly configured thin notebook.

Among other benefits, the active digitizer lets a user lay their hand on the screen without creating a disturbance and adapts itself immediately for left-handed users, according to a Microsoft representative.

Unlike the Graffiti interface developed by Palm, Microsoft's tablet PC interface allows the user to write full words and even sentences. Text can be scrawled over the company's "journal" interface, which looks like real lines of paper with a red margin and blue lines, or a Web page or e-mail.

Some of the most impressive functions enabled by Microsoft's new software won't be included with the first version of the product, however. The "journalist tool" and "snippet" function will be available only by download, since they still have some bugs in them, the representative said. The journalist tool synchs up handwritten notes with audio, as the Tablet PC records both.

Snippet, meanwhile, allows users to annotate existing documents with the electronic pen.

Microsoft isn't putting all its eggs in one basket though. Its Tablet PC platform includes a "soft keyboard" that resembles the keyboard in the Graffiti interface. All nine Tablet PCs that Microsoft's new software is designed for also have either a conventional, notebook-like keyboard, or can be attached to a collapsible keyboard.