Microsoft Partners Showcase Tablet PC Offerings

By Colin C. Haley

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Besides Microsoft, IT firms large and small are looking to etch their own Tablet PC success stories today.

After months of development work and back and forth with the Redmond, Wash., giant, software and hardware vendors today launched products tailored for the new laptop/PDA hybrid in hopes that the platform will reinvigorate sales tamped by the economic downturn.

Most see their offerings as well-suited to the highly mobile Tablet PC. The computer, powered by a Windows XP Professional operating system, allows users to input data with a stylus and connect with the Internet and corporate intranets with a built-in 802.11 wireless ethernet connection.

For example, WebEx envisions on-the-go Tablet PC users tapping into its MediTone Network for real-time online conferences with colleagues.

"WebEx Mobile Meetings on a Tablet PC can improve productivity everywhere from the shop floor to the boardroom," said David Thompson, chief marketing officer at the San Jose, Calif., firm.

In preparation for today's Tablet PC coming out party, WebEx fine-tuned its product to be sure its Web meeting interface could handle the digital ink, display and multimedia capabilities of the new machines.

Likewise, ScanSoft, a Peabody, Mass., maker of speech software senses opportunity.

ScanSoft applications help Tablet PC users fill forms (by voice or in their own handwriting) and organize hand-written notes in the Microsoft Windows Journal utility. This might allow doctors, nurses and medical administrators to enter patient information directly into tablets, saving time and cutting paperwork.

In addition, Scansoft, a longtime Microsoft partner, will allow developers to add speaker-independent and "microphone-free" voice command capabilities to their applications as well as text-to-speech functions.

Another company with strong Microsoft ties is Groove Networks, a Beverly, Mass., maker of collaboration software. Microsoft owns a minority stake in Groove.

Groove's first offering for the Tablet PC is a digital ink-enabled chat tool for its Groove Workspace. The product combines Groove's security collaboration environment wth the Tablet's PC's ink capabilities.

The combination allows a Tablet PC user to use the Tablet PC pen to make an on-screen sketch and then share it with colleagues. Privately held Groove is demonstraing the technology at Microsoft's launch event in New York, as well as in other regions of the United States.

Other software vendors debuting products Tablet PC products today include Alias/Wavefront, Avanade, ProScape Technologies, Iteration Software and Sensiva.

Perhaps the group with the most to gain or lose from a Tablet PC is hardware makers. More than 20 PC hardware vendors are scheduled to release Tablet PCs within the next year, and more than a dozen have products hitting shelves in conjunction with today's Windows XP Tablet PC Edition launch.

Toshiba's entry is the Portege 3500 Series, which features an 802.11b Wireless LAN Module and an integrated Wi-Fi antenna, Bluetooth wireless connectivity options so users can share information and access Internet connections in more locations, such as hotels, airports, at home or in the field.

The product also includes an Intel Pentium III-M processor, 1.33GHz , Secure Digital Media slot as well as integrated CompactFlash to maximize workforce productivity.

Hewlett-Packard weighs in with the Compaq Tablet PC TC1000 , which has similar specifications (Microsoft provided manufacturers with a list of required components) as the Toshiba model. THe TC1000 starts at $1,700.

Other Microsoft hardware manufacturing partners include Acer, Dixons Group, Electrovaya, FIC, Fujitsu PC Corp., Fujitsu Siemens Computers, Hewlett-Packard Co., Legen, Motion Computing, NEC, NEC CI, PaceBlade Technology, Research Machines, Sotec, Tatung, Time Group, ViewSonic, Viglen, WalkAbout and Xplore Technologies.

Despite glowing predictions from companies with a stake in the Tablet PC game, industry researcher Gartner forsees a slow start, with only a few vertical industries (medical, government, service) embracing the computers at first.

A Gartner analyst also cautioned that clumsy hardware designs and price will be barriers and forcast shipments of 425,000 units in 2003, representing just 1.2 percent of worldwide notebook shipments.