Silicon Insights: The Tablet PC Returns

Ten years after the first efforts at a tablet PC failed, it's back again. And this time its cheerleader is none other then Bill Gates himself.

In order to understand the debate surrounding Gates' push for a tablet PC, it helps to know a little history behind the technology's first failure.

The story starts with a company called Grid Computing, which introduced an early version of a PC tablet back in 1989. Basing it on Microsoft's old DOS based operating system, Grid tried to take a creative approach to designing a radical mobile computer.

Up until then, all portable computers where in a clamshell form factor. The GridPad, as it was called, was heavy and very expensive and although it did use a pen for input and navigation, it was really just a basic portable computer but in a tablet design.

It gained minimal success in some vertical markets, but in the end, Gird was sold off to Tandy, which eventually let the company fade away.

Go Came and Went

In 1991, a company called Go Corporation came on the scene and created another version of a tablet PC, but this time they created an operating system, called PenPoint, just for their tablet. For the first time, the industry had a tablet PC computing platform.

This venture came out with a lot of noise and promise, and in fact, some analysts and industry leaders predicted that pen computing, as it was known back then, would revolutionize the world of computing, opening up the world of computers to the everyman.

Unfortunately, this venture also failed miserably. The promise of pen computing was supposed to lie in the ability of a person to just write on a screen, with the computer interpreting the handwriting and turning it into digitized code.

There was one problem. The hand-writing recognition software did not work. (For a history of this era, check out Startup: A Silicon Valley Adventure Story by Go CEO Jerry Kaplan).

Microsoft Puts Millions Behind Success

Now the tablet PC has emerged again, with a similar set of promises and fanfare.

And many are surprised to see Gates pushing it. Microsoft tried and failed at the pen computing effort in the early 1990s, amid claims and counterclaims about whether or not it played a role in the demise of Go.

But technology has made dramatic advances in the last 10 years and even the hand writing recognition software now actually works within certain limitations and restrictions. And now, Gates says he truly believes that the tablet PC represents the future of mobile computing.

Microsoft has invested millions of dollars on four key areas that will be important if the tablet PC is to be successful. The first is a special version of the Windows operating system that takes real advantage of a pen or stylus for navigation and input.

Secondly, it has invested heavily on technologies such as advanced hand writing recognition and voice recognition, elements of a pen-computing environment that eventually will make or break the platform.

Third, the firm has just released a special developers kit so software developers can create new applications just for the tablet PC. And fourth, it has created special reference designs with various partners such as Acer, Compaq and others, to make sure the Tablet PC gains traction and eventually takes off.

Doomed to Failure — Again?

Ironically, the most vocal critic of the tablet PC is Jeff Hawkins. Hawkins was an early Grid engineer, who today is the most important visionary in personal digital assistants.

His early failures at Grid have helped him form his vision for the Palm PDA and allowed him to almost single-handedly create the PDA industry.

But in a recent Comdex keynote address, Hawkins predicted the failure of Microsoft's tablet PC and said he wished "the tablet PC would just go away."

As a veteran of the early pen computing wars, he has seen it from the inside and apparently does not share the same optimism that Gates does for this mobile computing platform.

It is too early to tell if the Gates' tablet PC will eventually be successful. But this time it is being back by a very powerful industry visionary in Gates, and supported by the clout and muscle of his company.

It has become a major area of focus for industry watchers and various interested parties, since the success or failure of the tablet PC this time lies solely in the hands of Gates and his partners and their ability to deliver on a vision and promise for what they believe is the next mobile computing platform.

Tim Bajarin is a consultant and leading computer industry analyst and futurist, covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. He's based in Campbell, Calif.