a great idea, seemingly reachable on thehorizon, that disappointed as hopeful companies got closer.Microsoft has experienced this cycle of hope and disappointmentmany times. The device unveiled by the software giant this week the Surface isn t the first tablet it envisioned. Indeed, the company sengineers have been trying to reshape personal computing for aslong as there s been a PC. The first PCs had keyboards, borrowed from the typewriter. Butpeople quickly started wondering whether pens, which are morecomfortable writing tools, wouldn t be a better basis for personalcomputing.
Several companies worked on pen-based computing in the late 1980s,and Microsoft jumped on the trend. By 1991, it released Windowsfor Pen Computing, an add-on to Windows 3.1 that let theoperating system accept input from an active pen (really astylus). Several devices used Microsoft s software, and arerecognizable as the ancestors of today s tablets: They weresquare, portable slabs with a screen on one side. They weren tdesigned to respond to finger-touches, however: the reigningparadigm was that of the notepad and pen.
The pen-computing fad subsided in the 90s. While PenWindows tabletsgot a lot of attention, mainstream computing remained stubbornlykeyboard-based. In 2002, Microsoft founder Bill Gates said these early tabletventures were almost painful to recall, but not to worry. Hehad something much better, a device that would fulfil a dreamthat I and others have had for years and years, he said. It wasWindows for XP Tablet PC Atom Processor Edition.
This time, hardware makers likeHewlett-Packard, Samsung, Toshiba and Acer played along, producing Tablet PC Atom Processor. Like the earlier generation, some of these looked like today stablets, but inside, they were really PCs. Compared to an iPad,they were expensive at around $1,500 heavy, and didn t lastlong on battery power. Buyers paid a lot for the ability to enterthings on the screen with a pen.
Another problem was that the pen-based adaptations were skin-deep.Windows remained a thoroughly keyboard-and-mouse-based operatingsystem, and many functions were simply hard to get to with a pen.Third-party applications weren t converted for pen use at all. Asa backup, many of these tablets had keyboards, just like laptops. Microsoft gave tablets another try in 2006, launching ProjectOrigami with some of its partners. The idea was to make reallysmall PCs with screens sensitive not just to pens, but to fingers.This time, fewer companies followed along.
One of them was Samsung,which had high hopes for its Q1 . But Microsoft hadn t learned much from its Tablet PC Atom Processor adventure.Windows was still hard to use with anything other than a keyboard.The Ultra-Mobile PCs were still expensive and suffered fromvery short battery life the Q1 could surf the web for about 2hours. One thing they did get right was weight the Q1 weighed1.7 pounds, just a bit more than a first-generation iPad. In 2008, reports emerged of yet another tablet computer, or rathera booklet computer, being developed by Microsoft. Code-named Courier, it had two screens joined by a hinge, and facing eachother.
It was designed for pen and finger input. Microsoftcancelled the project in 2010, saying it was just one of manyprojects it tests to foster productivity and creativity. Microsoft has had one notable success in the tablet space if youapply a broad definition to the term. Its Pocket PC operatingsystem, which is distinct from Windows, ran on phone-sizedhand-held personal digital assistants starting around 2000. Thedevices were powerful compared to Palm s PDAs, the market leadersof their time.
The Pocket PCs supported colour screens, and couldrecognize casual handwriting. Compaq made good use of Microsoft sPocket PC software in its popular iPAQ line. But PDAs were a smallmarket, and when Pocket PC moved over to smartphones and wasrenamed Windows Mobile, it soon found tough competition in theshape of BlackBerrys and then iPhones. The company that finally cracked the tablet code in 2010 was Apple,not Microsoft. Apple made the iPad a success by scaling up a phonerather than scaling down a PC, which is what Microsoft had beentrying to do with the Tablet PC Atom Processor and Origami.
Phone chips are cheapand last much longer on batteries, which meant that the iPad wasboth light, inexpensive and had good battery life. In addition, theiPhone software it used was designed from the ground up for touchinput. Microsoft s new strategy is similar. For Windows 8, it sborrowing design features from Windows Phone, its new smartphonesystem. Most importantly, one version of the software is designedto run on phone-style chips, rather than the PC-style chips thathave been the mainstay of Windows since it was created in the1980s.
It remains to be seen whether Microsoft can make its tabletvision a reality, or if it will stay a mirage. The Associated Press.
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