What's Next for Tablet PC

Peter Loforte discusses Microsoft's vision for Tablet PC and the future of mobile computing.

VSM's editor in chief Patrick Meader discusses Microsoft's vision for Tablet PC and the future of mobile computing with Peter Loforte, general manager of Microsoft's Tablet PC platform. Learn what special challenges developers face in adapting to programming for mobile environments.

PM: Where is the mobile market today?

PL: Mobile PC momentum is phenomenal right now, whether its traditional notebooks or Tablet PCs. I saw a quote recently from Intel that mentioned notebook computers outsold televisions over the holiday season. That gives you an idea of how popular mobile PCs are becoming. Laptops have outsold desktops for several years in Japan. The reason for that is fairly obvious, I think. If you can miniaturize the power of the desktop and carry it with you wherever you go, that is a compelling benefit.

For the first time in the U.S, we're beginning to see laptops and mobile PCs in general outsell desktops, not just in gross sales, but in unit sales. You will see more laptops and mobile PCs on the shelves today than you will desktop computers.

PM: Tell me about the strategy behind "Microsoft Windows Anywhere." How does it affect developers planning, architecture, and coding?

PL: Microsoft's Windows Anywhere strategy is our recognition of that fact that mobile PCs are becoming more affordable, and that more people in the professional space take mobile PCs with them to meetings, on airplanes, on business trips, and even extend that to taking laptops home and using them both for work and personal entertainment. We want developers to take advantage of all the services that are available to Windows to make them more successful in building rich applications on top of this new phenomenon. Our Windows Anywhere effort is really an initiative to make sure that developers have the information and tools necessary to build rich mobile applications.

PM: It isn't just about writing software for the 1 million Tablet PC users. It's about changing how software is written for the 50 million mobile and notebook users.

PL: Correct.

PM: What are the issues in writing software for these users, and what specifically is Microsoft doing to help developers make sure their applications work better in this environment?

PL: Developers need to be mindful of a variety of issues. For example, if my database has an application associated with it, how does that work offline? How do I synchronize data? How do I do replication? These are things that have typically been difficult to do in the past, but are getting much easier. In the past, developers have had to build their own solutions to get around these issues.

Now Microsoft is developing the infrastructure and tools to support building these kinds of apps. Another key area is battery life. How do you write an application that is smart about batteries, so your app doesn't consume all the battery life when the user is on the road? Also, developers need to keep in mind network awareness, such as being smart about how your app adapts to roaming from between various kinds of networks, including both low- and high-speed networks, and networks that are hosted at home and on the road. How do you do that in a seamless manner? Microsoft's Windows Anywhere effort is an attempt to give developers the tools they need to build rich mobile applications.

PM: And it is this that you'll be discussing at the Windows Anywhere conference in San Francisco?

PL: We'll discuss how technologies such as Indigo and Web services can serve as a mechanism to synchronize and keep your data with you and up-to-date. We'll talk about battery management, network awareness, and making sure your application knows how to connect to high speed and low speed networks in an efficient manner. We'll also discuss how to determine your network status, such as whether you are online or offline.

We'll also talk about the input metaphors that are important in a mobile environment. In a highly mobile environment, you might not be at a desk, but standing up or on the go. That's where the additional Tablet PC modalities can come into play. So we'll discuss how to take advantage of annotation or notetaking in your application, how to take advantage of handwriting recognition and the pen functionality in general. These are important principles for all developers who create applications for mobile developers; in other words, these are important principles for all developers given today's computing environment.

PM: Can you name an application that serves as a good example for how to handle these issues?

PL: The current version of Microsoft Outlook is one of the best network-aware applications I'm aware of. For example, its new cache mode automatically synchronizes and creates a local cache of your data means when you're connected to a high-speed Internet. When you're on a low-speed connection, it senses that automatically and brings down only the headers. When you reconnect to a network, it synchronizes automatically. There is no UI you have to go through, and there's no resolution conflict you have to go through. If you have multiple machines, the current version of Outlook is smart about making sure that the data stays up to date across all the machines.

PM: What can developers take away from the functionality they see in Outlook?

PL: Today the operating system supports the functionality you see in Outlook. But it's a little complex, so we're doing things to wrap the functionality and make things easier for the kinds of applications developers need to build. The key point to take away is that we're not changing anything developers are doing. Developers write their code the way they've always written it, whether in VB.NET or C#. All Microsoft is doing is augmenting their skill sets. We're helping them think about disconnected data sets, power management, and modifying their existing code to support mobile functionality more seamlessly. It's not a new paradigm; developers are leveraging their existing skill sets and their existing assets.

PM: Tell me about the inroads Microsoft has made with Tablet PC. How are things different now than when Tablet PC launched?

PL: When we initially released the Tablet, just a little more than two years ago, we were focused predominantly on the enterprise and vertical markets. We were selling it to mobile information workers who had computing needs away from their desks. We were focused on a specific form factor—the ultra portable market—and we had a handful of OEMs on our generation 1 platform. We did well, especially in vertical markets such as health and education.

PM: What are the key features that make a Tablet PC different from a traditional laptop?

PL: The Tablet PC is a device we view as a superset of the traditional laptop. The Tablet PC operating system is a superset of Windows XP Professional. So it has everything that OS has, but also includes the pen, ink and handwriting recognition technology that gives enable you to write directly on the screen, in addition to using a mouse and a keyboard. Over time, we expect that the vast majority of Windows laptops sold will be Tablet PCs. That doesn't mean that we expect them to all be slates, but we do expect Tablet PCs that are slates, convertibles or hybrids will become the de facto mobile PCs.

PM: Do you think the Slate version of the Tablet PC distracted potential users from Microsoft's goal with Tablet PC, in the sense that the gee whiz factor of the slate overwhelmed the idea that what a Tablet PC really gives you is an extra means of inputting, as well as manipulating, text and images on a laptop.

PL: I wouldn't say that slates distracted from what a Tablet PC is, but there is a perception issue with Tablet PC, where people still don't understand how it can benefit them. For example, show somebody the NEC VersaLite Tablet PC, which weights only two pounds and measures only 11m thick. It looks like a pad of paper. People look it and wonder what it is. Is it a CE-based operating system? Is it just a really big PDA? It takes a fair amount of convincing individuals that it is a personal computer. You can hook up a keyboard to it, it has a Pentium chip in it, it has a 20 gigabyte hard drive, and you can put a gigabyte of RAM into it. You can run all your usual applications on it. For some people, it is a revolutionary leap, and it takes them a while to appreciate what a Tablet PC brings to the table.

The convertibles present much more of an evolutionary step. It provides the functionality you expect to find in a laptop, but it also lets you swivel the screen around.

Finally, slates remain an important part of our strategy in the sense that it is in vertical markets where we have had the biggest uptake in the use of the Tablet PC. It really is the right form factor for those markets. It's smaller, it's lighter, and the types of functionality users typically desire are better suited to a pen than a mouse and keyboard. So, slates are important, convertibles are important, hybrids are important.

PM: I've used Tablet PCs at home and on the road since their debut. But I haven't used any applications that made me feel Tablet PC is a must-have. What kinds of killer applications are you seeing, and how does Microsoft move Tablet PC from vertical niche markets like healthcare and education to the mainstream?

PL: At CES, we previewed some applications that will be available this Spring or even sooner. One of them is a media transfer tool that lets you take any media content, whether it's recorded television, videos, music, or photos from a media center machine or desktop machine, and transfer it easily to your Tablet PC, where you can consume it on the road or otherwise at your leisure. I use this program regularly. I have a media center machine at home that records content, and I use this program to grab TV programs automatically for my Tablet PC, where I watch them while traveling.

PM: Will this be a commercial tool?

PL: Yes. The specific way we'll distribute this is yet to be determined, but this will be a fully supported tool that we'll make available in some way to the Tablet PC user base.

PM: So why is a Tablet PC more compelling for this kind of application than a traditional laptop?

PL: Tablet PC's form factors, whether as a slate, or hybrid, or even a convertible, make it more suited for ad hoc settings, such as when sitting on a couch and watching TV. It's more akin to a newspaper or magazine than a traditional laptop, and more likely to be pulled out in settings where you'd use a newspaper or magazine, rather than a laptop.

PM: There were rumblings in the last year that the Tablet PC OS would be rolled into the main OS. Will Tablet PC continue to be a superset of your "standard" operating systems, or will the Tablet PC-specific APIs be merged with them?

PL: The simplest way to answer this now is to say that we want to make the Tablet PC pervasive, and we want to make it easy for people to take advantage of all the features that are on it. That doesn't answer the question directly, but I'd say ask me again in six months. Our goal is to take Tablet PC more mainstream.

PM: What do you mean by "more mainstream"?

PL: Who uses laptops today? It's anyone who uses a computer. There are home consumers, small business users, vertical users, enterprise users, crossover users—so, everyone!—and we want to make sure that all these users can benefit from Tablet PC functionality. For business users, we want to make sure they have a great Office experience. For home users, people who use it primarily as a media or entertainment PC, we want to make sure that the natural input and recognition technologies work great for that environment. Also, Microsoft is working on some products that make the product more consumer-friendly.

One important aspect of this is that some OEMs are coming out with consumer-friendly Tablet PCs. This means lower price points and devices that ship with more consumer-oriented media and entertainment features that take advantage of a Tablet PC's special capabilities.

About the Author

Patrick Meader is editor in chief of Visual Studio Magazine.

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