Microsoft dreams up low-cost minitablet

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

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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 designate PCs sold now as "Longhorn-ready," provided they meet certain requirements, including 512MB of memory, a mainstream Pentium or Athlon processor and a sufficiently capable graphics card. Greg Sullivan, lead product manager for the Windows unit, said PCs with less than these requirements may be able to run Longhorn, but those that meet this standard should be able to take advantage of its snazzier graphics and other new capabilities.

HP, for example, is announcing a series of PCs designed to be ready for Longhorn, including what it says are the first business desktops with a Trusted Platform Module chip, which will enable the machines to take advantage of Longhorn's "secure start-up" feature.

Microsoft plans an updated Windows logo program that will offer two separate designations--one for software and hardware that will run on Longhorn and a premium logo reserved for machines that take advantage of Longhorn's new features.

Among the other announcements:

• A planned server OS update of Windows Server 2003, known as R2, will go into a public beta later this week and is slated to ship in the second half of this year.

• Microsoft plans to develop a PC design contest to try to spur PC makers to not only develop computers that go beyond beige, but also ones that reflect the design cues of Longhorn.

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