Friday, November 11, 2011, marks the 10th anniversary of Microsoft's announcement of third-party Tablet PCs. To commemorate the occasion, we're publishing a series of three stories. This is the first of three. (See also: Microsoft's Tablet PC turns 10)
The first time Silicon Valley chip analyst Nathan Brookwood saw a Windows tablet prototype he was hooked.
“I said ‘Boy, this is the right way to do it’,” Brookwood recalled after seeing then Microsoft CEO Bill Gates show off the device at the big Comdex trade show in Las Vegas back in 2001. “The thing I found most compelling then and still find most compelling is the ink technology. Even today, if I’m in a meeting or conference room and people see me taking notes with my stylus on the tablet someone will say ‘How’d you do that?’”
Since he got his first tablet in 2003, Brookwood has used a succession of three Windows tablets made by Fujitsu – or slates as they were originally called. "It's the Windows ink technology that keeps me a customer." Well, that and the legacy of data he's accumulated. "I have eight years' worth of meeting notes. I'm surprised Microsoft hasn't been able to get more mileage out of that feature."
Brookwood, a well-known chip analyst who heads his own Silicon Valley consulting firm, Insight64, has seen his share of tech marketing flops. He ranks the failure of Windows tablets to make any serious headway right up there with the worst of them, particularly since he thinks they still have an edge in many areas. (Slightly ahead of his time, Gates even predicted back in 2001 that tablets would become the most popular form of PC within five years.)
But Apple has been able to capitalize on cheaper components that weren't available when Windows tablets first came out in the $1,800-$2,000 range. Those earlier models were also heavier, weighing in at over two pounds.
"People are still amazed when they see how easy it is to convert my scribbling to text," says Brookwood. "What a great application that would have been to promote for education or anyone that has to take notes, but I've never really seen that done."
Until recently, Brookwood had been using a "vintage" 2006 Fujitsu ST5100 tablet based on Intel's dual-core Centrino processor. "I've gone from Windows XP to Vista and now Windows 7 and I can surf the web and do all the handwriting recognition stuff." He's also backed all his files up to a server making it easy to upgrade to a new model and migrate his files.
Test driving Windows 8 on an MSI WindPad Tablet
But now Brookwood is ahead of the curve. He's been playing with an MSI WindPad running not only Windows 7, but a beta test version of Microsoft's WIndows 8 with the new Metro interface designed for tablets. His early impression? So far, so good.
"My basic view of Windows 8 tablets is that basically it offers all the features you want in a tablet — it does multitouch very well, you can watch TV and surf the web just like using an iPad, and Microsoft's done a nice job on the Metro user interface.
Still he acknowledges some of the early criticism that the Metro UI is better suited for touch-oriented applications than traditional programs like Office and Outlook. "I would concur with that assessment," he said.
Brookwood found an easy workaround though, with an onscreen button that lets you toggle back and forth between Windows 8 and the familiar Windows 7 Start Menu interface. The toggle button was made available by a developer who discovered he could expose the Windows 7 interface after he got the Windows 8 beta.
"When I want to do email or write, I switch to the Windows 7 interface that's just a click away," said Brookwood. "Which is great because it means I can use the tablet productively like a PC. I wouldn't use the touchscreen for those kind of apps. It's the best of both worlds because it also has the capacitive screen to let me use a stylus for handwriting."
Still he's not ready to anoint Windows 8 as an iPad killer. "You have to remember these devices won't be out until later next year. And these tablets, at around two pounds, aren't as light as the iPad. So if you're looking for ultra light and all day battery life, they're not there yet. But neither is Windows 8."
No incentive to switch to iPad or Android
While he appreciates the iPad's critically acclaimed design features and bountiful applications, Brookwood says he has no incentive to switch camps to Apple, Android or other newer entrants that rely on the touchscreen interface.
"When I'm in a meeting or a conference room and someone's typing on a laptop or tablet with a keyboard, I find that distracting. The beauty of the Windows tablet for me is that I can have it sitting in my lap or lying flat and quietly take notes in long hand that are very easy to convert," he said. "Another feature I find people aren't aware of is that you can search on the handwritten notes too, so it's easy to find something from an old meeting or event I might have written about."
Some of these new tablets will also fill out the hybrid category of convertible tablets that include a keyboard. Brookwood is not a fan. "I just find them unattractive because you have to carry the extra weight of a keyboard whether you need one or not," he said, noting that at least there are some models with removable keyboards.
"There are so many little ways that Android and iOS don't do things that Windows does," says Brookwood. "If Microsoft and its partners can come out with some great Windows 8 tablets I think they could be a huge winner."