WPCE - Tablet PCs get an outing in Tokyo

Less than a month before they are due to go on sale, Tablet PCs from a variety of companies were unveiled to the public Wednesday as the World PC Expo show opened in Tokyo.

The Tablet PCs, from companies including Fujitsu Ltd., Toshiba Corp., NEC Corp., Sotec Co. Ltd., PaceBlade Technologies Inc., ViewSonic Corp. and Acer Inc. are most of the models that will hit Japanese retail shelves on Nov. 7 -- the date Microsoft Corp. has chosen to launch its second attempt to popularize tablet computing.

The machines on show fell into one of two form-factors. There are single slab models which feature notebook-size screens and are used like large notepads and models with keyboards, which can be used like regular notebook computers or, with the screen twisting around 180 degrees and folded back down so it faces outwards, used like notepads.

Among companies showing the single-slab type were Fujitsu, NEC, PaceBlade and ViewSonic while notebook-computer-type machines were on show from Toshiba, Sotec and Acer.

Hardware-wise, there is little to choose between many of the models and early-adopters are likely to find themselves choosing a product more on looks and brand name than on technical specifications.

The systems, all of which were prototypes and subject to change, all had similar hardware profiles. All but one were based on Intel Corp. Pentium III-M processors with Acer and Fujitsu choosing the 800MHz version, NEC and ViewSonic using the 866MHz version and Toshiba going for a faster 1.3GHz version. PaceBlade's tablet was using a Transmeta Corp. TM5800 processor running at 867MHz.

All machines were equipped with 256M bytes of memory and all had 10.4-inch LCD (liquid crystal display) panels, with the exception of Toshiba, which had chosen a 12-inch LCD. Hard disk drives were between 20G bytes and 30G bytes among the makers that disclosed the drive capacities.

Whether Microsoft can make a success of its efforts this time round, and avoid a repeat of the failed Windows for Pen Computing push in the mid-Nineties, remains up to the market -- a market that Microsoft is keen to make as broad as possible.

"We are hoping to sell enough that it gains momentum and the market realizes this is the replacement for the notebook," said Alexandra Loeb, corporate vice president of Tablet PC at Microsoft. Loeb, one of several executives the company had flown in from its Redmond, Washington, base to promote the system at World PC Expo, said Tablet PC is aimed at the "mass market."

However, Tablet PC makers showing their products here have narrower segments in mind.

"Our target user is a 20- to 30-year-old business man," said Yoshimura Koji, of Japanese PC maker Sotec's technical support center. At present, such users represent around a 10 percent slice of the company's entire user base, he added.

A ViewSonic representative said his company will target vertical markets, such as hospitals or workers who spend time outside of the office while Toshiba said it too will focus on business users.

In terms of geographic adoption, Microsoft still has some way to go. The basic handwriting recognition engine is designed to work with a dictionary and is available in six language versions: English, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Chinese (simplified and traditional versions), said Loeb.

For the system to work well, it needs to consult the dictionary. This means, say, writing French through the English version will deliver less than perfect results and also means the system's usefulness will be severely limited in markets where the six languages are not widely spoken, such as all Spanish and Portuguese speaking nations in Europe and Latin America and the wealthy European markets in Scandinavia.

With the launch still several weeks away, few companies would talk about the price of their machines. However, a few were willing to offer clues. Sotec said it is hoping to sell its machine for between ¥250,000 (US$2,005) and ¥260,000 while Toshiba said the price would be somewhere between ¥200,000 and ¥300,000.

Tablet PCs are likely to be more expensive than comparable notebook computers because of the more complex display (a digitizer needs to be mounted over the LCD to work with the pen) and Windows XP Tablet Edition, which costs makers more than XP Professional, said Takahisa Shirakawa from NEC's client server computing division.

World PC Expo, Japan's largest PC exhibition, runs from Oct. 16 to 19 at Tokyo Big Sight. More information can be found online at http://arena.nikkeibp.co.jp/expo/ .

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