Lora Heiny has a knack for stimulating good conversation in the Tablet PC community and her latest article, Will the real Tablet please show its pen? is certainly thought-provoking. When Microsoft first launched the Tablet PC these innovative devices were the only full PCs that worked with digital ink and a pen and they were easily distinguished from other PCs on the market. The digital ink landscape has changed since that launch and is changing still and there will surely be confusion in the marketplace as non-Microsoft backed Tablets begin to appear in numbers.
Lora’s contention in the article is that new tablet-like devices such as the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet and the recently announced MIT Media Lab laptop prototype are indeed Tablet PCs due to the tablet form factor combined with the ability to work with a pen. I say she is right on the money and my POV is the result of years of working with such devices.
When I first put the Windows XP Tablet Edition operating system on the diminutive Sony U70 PC early last year I dubbed it the "World’s smallest Tablet PC", a claim that was met with outright hostility by some in the Tablet PC community. The arguments against calling that device with the 5 inch screen a "Tablet PC" were usually the same two, that the device didn’t ship with the Tablet OS installed (and was thus not sanctioned by Microsoft) and that it had a passive digitizer instead of the Microsoft mandated active digitizer. The fact that the Sony U with the Tablet OS installed provided a complete environment that was nearly identical to that of "real" Tablet PCs was discounted as not true by the Tablet PC purists in the community, even though I wrote nearly a year’s worth of articles on this blog that demonstrated over and over again that the Sony was indeed as fully functional as any real Tablet PC, in fact in some instances even more functional since the small size of the device meant I could take it and use it in situations where a full-sized Tablet PC would never be taken.
Since Microsoft decided to license the Tablet Edition to OEMs for use on devices with passive digitizers the Tablet PC community has been scrambling to decide what future devices with similar form factors should be called. Bill Gates called them Mobile PCs during his keynote at WinHEC earlier this year, so this name should not be taken lightly. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Mobile PCs become the "nom du jour" to describe everything from notebook PCs to ultra-portable devices that use pen input. The recent appearance of the Gateway Convertible Notebook shows that savvy OEMs realize they must play up the "notebook computer with additional tablet features" in order to increase market acceptance of the Tablet PC device. This is a good thing for all concerned and in line with statements that Microsoft have given in the past that the goal is for every notebook PC sold to have Tablet functionality. They are integrating the ink features into Vista for this very reason. This will push Tablet PCs directly into the mainstream where they should be.
So Lora’s question whether these non-Microsoft sanctioned devices are tablet PCs is a timely one and I must answer a resounding yes. Let’s face it, Tablet PC is not a name trademarked by Microsoft (at least I don’t think it is) and at its base level it is just a descriptor for a device that can be used in a slate form with a pen. There are actually quite a few non-Tablet PC devices that meet this description and for us as a community of enthusiasts to say "no they are not Tablet PCs" is just, well, arrogant.
The real question here is how can Microsoft, the owner of the Windows XP Tablet Edition, make it clear to the consumer which devices are offshoots of the original Tablet PC and make it easy for them to tell these devices apart from others, such as the Nokia Internet Tablet. I believe a simple branding can be put in place along the lines of the successful "Intel Inside" brand campaign that we are now all too familiar with. I have suggested something along the lines of an "Ink Enabled" brand campaign that can be run much like the Intel campaign that makes it simple and easy for consumers to identify products that use the operating system that has powered all the "real" Tablet PCs from their inception.
I believe we are about to see a lot of innovative devices appear in the Mobile PC space that continue defining how consumers will compute in the near future. The Sony U and the OQO have demonstrated quite clearly how much utility they bring to the consumer and having such devices under the "Ink Enabled" umbrella would be absolutely killer. As long as these future devices were cheap enough, of course. After all, we consumers still want everything for nothing, right?