Tabula rasa

Sumit Agnihotry is not allowed to take a pad of paper into business meetings anymore.

Under “”Terry’s new law,”” he and the others at Acer America Corp. are only authorized to carry the TravelMate 100 Tablet PC, one of the first neo-tablets expected to debut before the end of this year. Agnihotry,

Acer’s product manager for mobile products, stopped by my office Wednesday morning to demonstrate the device up close. Terry is Terry Tomecek, Acer America’s general manager, who came with him.

I first saw the TravelMate 100 in the MGM Grand in Las Vegas Nev., when Microsoft’s Bill Gates came walking out with one during his Comdex Fall 2001 keynote speech. It looked like an ordinary notebook when he opened it up, one with a fairly small 10-inch screen size. Suddenly, he took the display and twisted it around 360 degrees — it was like a high-tech version of Linda Blair’s head in the Exorcist — and then folded it back over the keyboard. Presto-chango, a laptop became a tablet. The crowd loved it. Although applications are always interesting, trade shows like Comdex are all about innovative hardware designs, and this got the event off to a great start.

Next week, at TechXNY in New York, Microsoft will reportedly show off a beta version of the Windows XP Tablet operating system Gates discussed at Comdex. This is the galvanizing force behind the efforts of Acer and others to bring these devices to market. It is at once a way of changing the mobile computing interface as we know it and a last-ditch effort to stall the long-term transition of laptops to commodity items like PCs.

Tablets, of course, have been around for many years in the medical and insurance markets, from companies like Xplore Technologies. But the promise of a specific MS platform gives the hardware vendors a reasonable guarantee that critical applications will be ported and potential killer apps created around the devices.

Tomecek says he first realized that tablets have a more horizontal market scope during a meeting recently at a software developer’s office. There was some number-crunching to be done, and he needed to consolidate some figures. “”I didn’t have a piece of paper,”” he says. “”It wasn’t my office.”” Instead, he turned to the TravelMate and started using a program Microsoft calls Journal, which allows users to turn the tablet into a functioning pad for handwritten notes.

This anecdote — along with Agnihotry’s insistence that he “”couldn’t live without it now”” — is the stuff of a run-of-the mill marketing campaign. The difference came when I held the tablet in my own hands and started spilling some digital ink of my own. At first I wasn’t able to make real letters. My experience with personal digital assistants has made me hesitant to press down hard on the screen with a stylus. But the TravelMate is not a touch-screen. The pen uses radio-frequency technology, and it is absolutely possible to use it like a regular writing implement and scribble away, as I did.

Acer’s twist-top design looks like something Apple should have come up with for the iBook two years ago. It successfully allows users to maintain the traditional experience of a keyboard while testing out an unfamiliar interface. IBM, which crashed and burned when it tried to launch a half-notepad/laptop called the TransNote last year, will almost certainly enter the fray. So will Sony (this idea is so Sony, it should already be in their stores next to the digital picture frames), and, eventually, HP. Indeed, the tablet opportunity will be a test of whether HP can make use of Compaq’s R&D lab, which has been tinkering with an Evo tablet/notebook combo of its own for several years.

The key spec here will be the weight of the device (the TravelMate is about eight pounds). They will have to get as light as possible quickly for executives to carry them around everywhere. Intel, Transmeta and other companies are working hard to shrink parts down and keep them cool in order to make this happen. The other deciding point will be the handwriting recognition applications that could turn notes into typewritten documents. Unless they are 100 per cent accurate, tablet makers could face the same struggle in managing user expectations as the companies who once specialized in speech recognition tools.

I loved the TravelMate, and it was a good preview to the kind of choices that will become available to people like me once Windows XP Tablet PC edition hits the market. If it takes off, this segment will probably be led by a very small set of vendors, the way Palm and Compaq succeeded in the handheld space. Acer seems like a front-runner here, but nothing is written in stone — we got rid of those tablets a long time ago.

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