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IT Decisions - Microsoft puts pen to paper

If you're one of those one-finger typists who struggle with qwerty computer keyboards, Microsoft has the perfect prescription - the Tablet PC. But is this return-to-basics approach a serious business tool?

Forget personal computers, digital assistants and electronic organisers, what users really want is pen and paper.

This appears to be the philosophy behind one of Microsoft’s latest technological developments. The Microsoft Tablet PC (right) will be sold by hardware manufacturers at laptop prices, so says Microsoft’s PR machine.

Tablet PCs have been in development since July 2000. There are around 200 prototypes currently being worked on. Alex Loeb, who is behind development of the Tablet PC at Microsoft in Washington, USA, says that the company is “keeping its fingers crossed that the device appears sometime in 2002”.

The main thrust for developing such a technology seems to be the desire to invent a machine that will capture hand-written data, which can then be manipulated by other Windows applications. It is really nothing new.

Panasonic and other hardware manufacturers developed electronic white boards years ago.

Nevertheless, there are many applications for which handwriting is necessary, such as signature capture and many users who are not touch-typists and for whom hand-written input would be faster than one-finger typing. The Tablet PC, which looks not unlike an old-fashioned chalk board that children used in school at the turn of the 20th century, can function as a sheet of paper as well as a PC. Handwriting is captured as rich digital ink for immediate or later manipulation.

There is a danger it could go the same way as the Network Computer, a 1990s initiative, captained by Oracle’s Larry Ellison, which never progressed beyond prototype. It is difficult to see what the Tablet PC offers that users cannot do with pen, paper, a decent scanner and a PC. In the meantime, FDs can look forward to the imminent launch of a new series of Smartphones.

The term Smartphone describes devices, which are a cross between a personal organiser and mobile phone. Typically a Smartphone contains a calendar, address book, e-mail and messaging functions and a WAP browser. It is also simple to use. Roughly the same size as a normal business mobile phone and it can be operated one-handed. The difference is that a Smartphone has a larger-than-normal touchscreen.

People often mistake the Nokia 9210 Communicator for a Smartphone and, while there are similarities, the main difference lies in the operating system (OS).

Smartphones use EPOC, which is based on the Psion 5 OS and supports VGA touchscreen and full QWERTY keyboard. EPOC was created specifically for mobile devices by Symbian (a joint venture between Ericsson, Matsushita, Motorola, Nokia and Psion) and is ideal for real-time operation. It also facilitates multitasking and offers low power consumption, small screen display, limited input and output methods, slow processor speeds and standalone operation.

Ericsson lays claim to having launched the UK’s first Smartphone to operate Symbian’s EPOC32 OS. The R380 was launched in the summer of 2000. It was designed specifically to take advantage of two different functions: GSM functionality and PDA-type operation.

To offer the largest screen possible for the size of device, a hinged, passive flip was designed to hold the normal phone keypad. In flip-closed mode, the R380 looks and operates much like an ordinary GSM phone.

The Smartphone market is witnessing a plethora of device launches this autumn, offering colour screens, GPRS and WAP support. The main driver being the uptake of mobile Internet services by consumers and business users.

The R380 was Ericsson’s first EPOC32-based Smartphone but it is also likely to be its last closed Smartphone platform. Future versions will be open to third-party developers in the same way Psion 5 and Palm Pilot have been. What’s crucial to the success of these devices is the ability to add applications, either via a PC or directly over-the-air interface.

The device market is now wide open with key players jockeying for position.

Phone manufacturers are looking to build Organiser and PDA-type functionality into devices such as the Smartphone. Similarly, the PDA stable is building support for telephony into PDAs. But there’s everything to play for and no clear winners yet.

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