back to article Ghost of Gates' tablet haunts Microsoft's future

Almost ten years after Bill Gates personally bought into the idea of the tablet PC, Microsoft's hawking the concept as something fresh. It was Comdex 2001, the dawn of a new decade and a new century, when Microsoft's then chairman and chief software architect unveiled prototype tablet computers from Acer, Compaq, Fujitsu and …


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  1. Giles Jones Gold badge

    What are they for?

    What's the killer application?

    In meetings you might as well just take in a laptop if you want access to software, if you want to take notes then why not type? beats any hand writing recognition.

    A paper and pencil is hard to beat in terms of reliability.

    A desktop OS is great in terms of running the software you know on the move, but the GUI really isn't ideal for the job, no matter what extensions the OS provides.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Killer app


      Surely you're not thinking about playing a tap-rhythm game with a mouse?

      The one with the Nintendo DS Lite in the pocket, thanks.

    2. N2

      A paper and pencil...

      I use a notebook, A4 seems to work fine, good boot time & never says "PC load letter".

      I can write much faster than I can type & I can easily turn my notes to email if required & every year I get a new one for free.

      Battery life is amazing & Ive never lost any data.

      In the space programme the Americans spent millions of dollars developing a pen that would write in zero gravity, the Russians used pencils.

      1. Dave 142


        the whole pen/pencil thing is a myth.

      2. Brian 18

        Please not that tired myth again

        I have one of the pens in question. It was not developed by the US government or at their request. NASA originally used pencils and continued to use them even after this fabled pen was created.

        The space pen was developed by Fisher, a US manufacturer of writing implements. Fisher developed the pen with private funds and actually sells them at a high but reasonable price. I own one of these pens and I have to say it writes beautifully.

        PS. I am not now nor have I ever been employed by Fisher or NASA.

    3. Chris 3

      Re: What are they for

      I can think of a few potential applications - in my line of work I quite often have to to visit clients and take Powerpoints or clickable mock-ups of software/Web site designs. While it is possible to shove these onto a USB drive you always have the faff at the other end of getting it onto a machine, finding the machine doesn't have the right software etc.

      A Netbook could be the answer, but I mustardmit as a Mac user, I rather fancy a Slate running my mock-up software attached via a Dock connector to a projector. Moving and resizing GUI elements and adding short notes could actually be faster via touch than conventional keyboard & mouse.

      Niche, I know - but you did ask Giles.

  2. Tony Paulazzo

    Thirst slater

    What I want from a slate:

    2 GB ram, Win7 (not starter edition), SSD HD (120 GB min).

    Plays all standard def video formats (Archos 9 can't play Flash Youtube without dropping frames but can play HiDef on a 9 inch screen - pointless), allows Office to run whilst surfing the net without disk thrashing and has responsive multi finger and pen recognition. Ebooks in portrait mode of course and a battery life of 8 hours - all for under £500 sterling.

    The two stumbling blocks are they all seem to come with 1 GB as standard and battery life is little better than laptops.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      No more

      Archos codec support is rubbish! They never used to support stuff like MPG 1 or 2 without a £20 plugin and barely supported DivX/Xvid standards, flash video and MP4 support on the x04 was non-existent! One of the reasons I sold my A504 after 9 months, fed up with stepping down my MP4s to lower quality DivX to play them on the move.

      The only thing I liked about Archos was the fact that unlike the Apple cack, you used to be able to simply bring the Archos kit up as standard FAT32 drive on any system with support, you didn't need sodding iTunes to copy over some MP3s!

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    Alternatively.. ?

    Mr Gates has tremendous insight and noticed that there is a yet unfulfilled need for a tablet pc.

    His early work set foundations for pocket pc, tablet pc, netbooks and slate PCs at a time when technological costs and production costs would consign such devices to high price end of the markets of the time.

    Yet, like with Word, DOS and Office, ... he persevered. And that early vision, the seed planted oh so early is being seen and ripening into commercial fruit that has application even more widespread with Web 2.0-ness.

    In the early days with customer demand quite low his sponsored research projects identified where technologies and engineering had to converge in order to captivate interest and enthuse potential customers.

    It is amazing innit?

    The same things written from a different perspective seem to be quite a bit of difference n'est pas?

    Or perhaps it is hit Mr Gates day?

    1. System 10 from Navarone


      Dear Bill Gates's Mum,

      Sod off.

      All the best,

      The rest of the world.

      ...or maybe my sarcometer isn't working. Maybe the weather is affecting the readings...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Paris Hilton

        ? Title?

        You have your view, I have mine.

        I don't share your view and care not a jot or a whim whether you share mine.

        Tuff on you innit?

    2. Bilgepipe

      Yes but....

      Yes, but everyone else did it first. Gates might have seen tablets coming, but his products were rubbish. And now everyone else has already done it better while Microsoft sat around making video games.

      As for Ballmer, he doesn't even seem interested in his own product: " 'They're interesting,' he said. 'But it's not like they're big numbers compared to the total number of smart devices in the world.' " ( ) Let's hope that's more prescient than his writing off of the iPhone in 2007.

  4. jai
    Jobs Halo

    kinda missed their goal?

    it'd be easy to assume that the reason for the announcement was to try and steal some of the media frenzy that is building ahead of Apple's announcement later in the month. showing three devices, referring to tablets as slates, etc.

    but if that's the case, they seem to have gotten it wrong. by such a lacklustre announcement surely they've just made Jobs task all the more easy. No need to turn the RDF up to 11 when all you've got to do is do better than Ballmer's effort

  5. Mike Flugennock

    Nice recap of history, but... no Monkey Dance video?

    Well-done piece, but... no embedded video of Ballmer prancing and skipping grotesquely about a stage as some club dance track plays, armpits drenched, sweat glistening on his dome, howling insanely, until he collapses across a lectern and snarls, "I... love... this... COMPANY!" ...That _was_ Comdex'01, right? Or some big MS Developers' event?

    Some leaked covert webcam footage of Steverino pitching furniture at meetings might've been sweet, too.

    C'mon, you guys, let's get up and do the Monkey Boy again!

    Uhhhm... because I've had at least a couple of these. You really _do_ pour them large over here. Phew.

  6. Tom 64

    You could be wrong.

    I wouldn't discount this so quickly. I thought these looked great, and if the price is right, I'd have one to replace my now ageing netbook in a flash!

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I tried to be excited, I really did..

    Those machines that Uncle Fester was showing were curiously lumpen, charmless and bland. Five years ago, back when tiny PCs cost a fortune, and we didn't have netbooks, maybe I would have had a nerdgasm over the size and predicted cost.

    Hell, it's not even as if I hate Windows 7- my gaming rig, a Core i7 thing, runs 7, and it's easily the best effect from Redmond to date- and using Windows no longer feels steam driven next to my Linux and Snow Leopard machines. It boots nearly as fast as my Linux and MacOS machines with a following wind, and the increase in 3D performance over XP is great.

    I want to be excited, I really do. I have a netbook, and it's nice- maybe that HP tablet would be more interesting as a toy for spods like me if it were linuxed up. It doesn't look like a bad machine, but I really don't feel like I want Windows everywhere- I like to mix things up.

    That Nokia N900, for example, interests me more- even though there's probably less *stuff* for it, as it's sleeker and more pocketable. A weak reason, perhaps, but people don't buy stuff like that to be a workhorse often- but as a treat, for the luls, if you will. Ok, so I used a Nokia Communicator sucessfully for remote Solaris admin at work- but really, that wasn't a fun device to use anyway- just a nice pocket SSH machine.

    So I don't know, I shop for technology far, far too much- I'm an easy sell, but my wallet isn't whimpering with fear about these little tablet PCs. My eeePC seems like a perfectly good little machine to use meantime.

    I'm just hoping that Steve Bloody Jobs doesn't reveal that his slate thingy is unexpectedly brilliant too soon, need to cope with the post-Christmas financial armageddon first. Oh, and maybe get around to flogging some of the spare CDJs and mixers off on ebay to fund some more.. ahem.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Up


      If I'm not mistaken, you can use the full Debian ARM repository on the N900 (minus the Kernel probably), so I wouldn't say there's less stuff for it, seeing how large usually Debian's repositories are ;)

  8. Anonymous Coward

    microsoft is a has been

    i've had the misfortune to listen to his presentation which annoyed the hell out of me, his voice is a prelude to a silly monkey dance which cannot be erased from my mind sadly.

    it was rather amusing to watch him try hard to be charismatic with a noticed attempt to use jobs phrases. sadly, it was a miserable failure much like his role at Microsoft.

    Indeed Microsoft under Ballmer is following, NOT leading and this is embarking it on a new journey of demise.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Ballmer's QVC syndrome!

      Sorry, but he reminded me of one of those failed presenters on the shopping channels, who try so desperately to get all wet and exited about a fruit-peeler or an electronic water sharpener or some such other piece of electric-powered cack!

      "Here we have this amazing...gadget...that,,...looks amazing! It switch, to power it on....and er....comes complete with a manual and a's always good to see. in to any standard wall for only £999.99! Phone now and you can have a 10% discount! It" so and so forth!

  9. Anonymous Coward

    Simple business sense.

    Everyone knows that Apple is about to release one, so no matter who was first or who does or does not have something to market, MS simply has make a pitch to their customers, and make it seem that they were there first, else all that R&D gets wasted. You don't make a billion dollars by saying stuff like, "Yeah well we have one, but so do that lot over there, so you may want to check theirs out too."!

  10. Uwe Dippel

    @Tom 64

    Are you sure? So what's so great typing on a screen? or what is it that fascinates you in a tablet?

    Serious. I wouldn't know why I would want to interact with the screen of my ageing netbook. Finally touching the naked women that so far I can only see there?

  11. rhdunn

    A Schitzophrenic Microsoft

    Google dominates web search -- Microsoft: We must have search!

    Netbooks take off -- Microsoft: Hey, we need a piece of that!

    Apple prepares to announce a tablet/slate device -- Microsoft: Hey, we need to steal their thunder!

    Microsoft: What do we want to follow today?

  12. John Smith 19 Gold badge


    "His early work set foundations for pocket pc, tablet pc, netbooks and slate PCs at a time when technological costs and production costs would consign such devices to high price end of the markets of the time."

    Er no. These ideas existed before Windows and DOS and some pre-date the PC as you know it. You might look at Alan Kays "Dynabook" concept for a start.

    Yet, like with Word, DOS and Office, ... he persevered. And that early vision,"

    What "vision"? Operating systems, word processors and integrated software suites *all* pre-date the IBM PC architecture by a long way.

    or do you mean his "vision" of being a monopoly supplier and having near total control of the desktop he sets the price of the *one* component whose price did not fall as production volumes increased. That vision?

    "In the early days with customer demand quite low his sponsored research projects identified where technologies and engineering had to converge in order to captivate interest and enthuse potential customers."

    What research are you referring to? Do you mean advertising campagn where they say "Yeah this interface is great but runs like a dog on your tired old PC, you need to get a new one now."

    You appear to have been reading some sort of official history of Microsoft. If so it's factually inaccurate.

    Then again maybe your being paid to write one. In which case get as much money as you can and take regular baths.

  13. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

    History lesson

    The Windows Tablet PC could always run Windows applications. But handwriting, speech, and on-screen keyboard were clumsy attachments on-screen. It's diificult - I use an alternative screen keyboard called Fitaly, but my most useable arrangement has it docked into a fattened taskbar, and I had to hack to do that although it may now be self-docking. Application rewrites for Tablet were to be more pen-friendly, and in some special markets, very notably medicine, the stylus computer did catch on. Tablets also had a Rolls Royce of stylus input, an electronically sensed stylus instead of clumsy fingers, which were invisible to it. My preferred mode was stylus for pointing and separate mouse for clicking, and since the cursor is rarely even exactly where the stylus is, I appreciated seeing where it was on the screen before each click.

    As for other devices making touch acceptable, surely not Kindle but PalmPilot, PocketPC, and a generation or two of smartphones. Are you being deliberately inaccurate to provoke comments? Or just being subtly sac!rcastic? Ahhhhh... you got me good then.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Big Brother

    Microsoft is the new IBM, Google is the new Microsoft

    Microsoft has always been the new IBM, Google the new Microsoft

  15. Thomas Schulze

    Have yourself a nice cup of coffee...

    ""Almost"? Really? Has Microsoft's CEO heard of the netbook or the iPhone, devices that are actually as portable as a phone and are as powerful as a PC, but don't have to run Windows?"

    So netbooks are as portable as a phone, and the iPhone is as powerful as a PC? Have you actually used either? An awful end to an ok article, good sir.

    Much as I love the Reg, sometimes this never-happy-brigade of writers makes me wonder...

    I would agree with AC above that MSFT's vision ten years ago was right but maybe the timing wasn't. Basically these tablets (or whatever you want to call them) seem to be able to do all that Apple's new device can, and possibly more... will you be able to run Photoshop, Office, etc on the iSlate? Or will it be iBeer and iFart on a larger screen? Guess we'll have to wait and see...

  16. dogged
    Thumb Up

    MS does it better from behind

    MS has always done better when playing catch-up. When it's the undisputed king of the world, we get bad products from them. When they're fighting to beat a decent a product from somebody else, then they can often produce some real gems.

    I look forward to seeing what they come up with as it progresses. I do want the Courier, though. I just wish I knew why I want it....

  17. blod
    Gates Halo

    I'm not a Microsoft hater, not by a long shot, but...

    I think Balmer is one of the worst CEOs ever. In his reign, Microsoft has turned from an industry leader to an Industry follower that instead of innovating and conquering new markets, fortifies the old ones.

    Everything Microsoft does is in response to other companies, that's the worst long term strategy ever.

    Their latest move - the slate, is pathetic. They are not reinventing the portable PC like the iPhone reinvented the mobile phone/mp3 player, they are just offering the 2010 version of something that existed in 2006, that's not innovation, that being being dragged with the current like a piece of dead wood.

    The board should cut this engineer loose and find someone with some cojones. All their competitors are using blitzkrieg warfare, and these guys are still digging a Maginot Line.

    1. MuppetHater
      Thumb Down

      The iPhone did not "do it first"

      Pocket PC Phone Edition came a long long long time before the JesusPhone. Just setting the facts straight.

  18. Shonko Kid

    That's their problem, right there.

    It has to run Windows XXX.

    I really like the form factor of an A4 tablet, and I've used Tablet PCs, but they're just not up to the job. The problem is that the HW requirements needed to run any of the Redmond warez means that you can never stray to far from a power socket, and the device is HEAVY. I want a lightweight device, that will last 12 hours on a charge, and be useful. Sadly, whether Monkey boy realizes this or not, it pretty much rules out Windows as being the OS inside.

    It's the same story as with their mobile offerings, stuck to the cash cow (that's now looking rather thin) that is Windows. Move on Steve, come join us in the 21st century!

  19. Dr. Funk.

    Thanks, but No Thanks.

    Sorry, but his all looks like a case of a 'me too' device. 10 year old hardware platform with a slightly re-hashed version of an overbloated OS on board. No thanks.

    I was tempted to buy a linux netbook but I think I may wait and see what Apple to with this segment of the market. All I want really is a light,portable device with decent battery life that I can use to surf on the move or on the sofa - not interested in using Office productivity apps as I don't work on the move

    What I do find interesting is that nobody has mentioned so far that a while ago Steve Jobs said that Apple wouldn't enter the netbook/subnotebook market. But, if the rumours are correct, that seems to be exactly what they are prepping for .

    Mine's a pint please

  20. ukdeluded

    The new sheep ...

    This is a real shame. Microsoft used to innovate, but that seems to be many years past now, and really you want more people than Apple to be innovative.

    Everyone has said it already, Microsoft have become uninspired. Windows 7 is a great upgrade from XP, but the first OS/X was a leap forward. WM7 is a leap from 6 and 6.5, but still behind the iPhone, and here we have an upgrade to the clumsy terrible HP 1000 tablet which we bought for secretaries and then promptly binned.

    Everyone now wants to see if Apple can do to the tablet market what they did to the smartphone market, change the whole landscape, but I was really hoping (even though I am an Apple user) that someone else would make me sit up and go 'Wow!'.

    It's amazing that two giants like Microsoft and HP cannot come up with anything new or exciting.

    Microsoft needs to throw out it's old and find some innovators.

  21. deeztech
    Thumb Down

    Comparing apples to oranges

    One of the problems I have with this article and I have many, is making statements that this can't actually be successful because developers will have to pay Windows 7 license fees when they can make more money by using linux or even android. I assume it refers to the upcoming android OS which is also another linux flavor. You can't possibly compare linux or android to Windows 7. I'm not a linux basher, on the contrary I use linux quite a bit but not on the desktop. It's simply not ready for the desktop. Too many hoops to run through to make it run like Windows. Too many bugs and too many work arounds. Have you ever tried to use multiple displays on your linux desktop and have expected to save the configuration reliably everytime you reboot? Have you ever tried to setup a pptp vpn connection so that you can connect to your job and do your work?

    Point is, Windows 7 is an outstanding desktop OS which gets me working with minimum amount of fuss in a very reliable manner. If it means that I have to pay extra for the convenience and the reliability then so be it. Remember, you ALWAYS get what you pay for.

    1. Ben Tasker

      In Answer to your questions

      Yes, I have done both without issues., So what's your point, that you don't understand how to do it?

      That said, Win 7 is a vast improvement over previous releases.

      Based on your comment I'd say that you are misunderstaning something - Linux != Windows


      1. deeztech

        @Ben Tasker

        I never said that I didn't do both. I did but I had issues and I had to spend time on the web researching it. It didn't just work like it works on Windows. You are downplaying the incostencies and bugs that plague linux it on the desktop. You know you do, everyone else who has spent ANY considerable time in Linux realizes it too. So, drop the act and get real! I bet you are one of those Linux zealots that tell people to RTFM everytime someone has issues with your beloved OS. Here's my motto on linux on the desktop. "If you like to waste your time figuring out how to do trivial stuff on your computer, then by all means, use Linux".

    2. RichyS

      Desktop OS in a Slate? Really?

      I think you're missing the point.

      These 'slate' computers are not intended to run desktop OS -- they're appliances. They should do a few things very well, and be light with decent battery life, etc. Stuffing an all purpose desktop OS in there is not going to help achieve that. Hell, I don't want to be messing around with the Registry or defragging my slate (okay, bit of a stereotype). I want to pick it up, and for it to work. Web browsing, media, a few handy little apps. You get the idea. No Word. No Excel, and certainly no resource hog like Photoshop.

      I think Apple get it. I know Microsoft don't.

      1. deeztech

        I agree mostly

        But, if I'm going to invest a few hundred dollars (probably more like $400-$500), I would like to be able to use it as a desktop on occassion while I'm away to my favorite beach spot and I need to do some quick work so I don't have to lug both my laptop and my slate with me.

    3. ukdeluded

      Not ALWAYS!!

      Have you tried Linux Mint recently? Great Linux desktop, have moved many people over to it with very few issues, so depending on what you use an OS for, you don't always get what you pay for, sometimes you get something great for free!

      Windows 7 is a lot better than Vista, but I still struggle to tell people they should move from XP to 7, still not sure for 90% of users it makes a big difference.

      1. deeztech

        But, does it run Quickbooks?

        I have used various distros like Ubundu, PC Linux OS, Mandriva, Mepis. It always comes down to the same trivial thing. Here are the usual customer questions and comments when I suggest to migrate them to Linux:

        Can I use quickbooks to manage my small business finances with Linux? Can I use Word and Excel and Outlook? I tried that OpenOffice software you set up on my computer, but I just don't like it. I would rather use office.

        People need to realize, the everyday small/medium business owners are so invested with Microsoft products it's almost impossible to migrate them to a new platform whether it's better or not. People are resistant to change. You can try to migrate to Linux and then you are going to spend a very considerable amount of your time trying to get Linux to look and behave like Windows which is what they are used to. Well, if you are going to do that, might as well use Windows and save yourself the headache.

  22. Paul Hates Handles

    Er... iPhone as powerful as a PC?

    You're kidding right?

    1. ukdeluded

      Missing the point?!

      I think this is missing the point a little. Don't count power by CPU or memory, 'powerful' in this respect I think is about the end user. Most end users if you ask why they use a computer it is for: Listening to music, watching films, email, internet, so from an end user perspective, the iPhone is as powerful as a PC because it allows them to simply do the things they want.

      Part of the issue (IMHO) is that PC makers and OS makers think we want ever more power when really the majority of use for computers has not changed since the humble 486.

      So yes, from a market and end user view, the iphone is every bit as powerful as a PC, as is an Android handset. WM6 we'll just ignore for the sake of this discussion ...

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @What are they for?

    In the field where engineers may have to move around whilst looking at the screen, a laptop is harder to handle than a tablet, which can be held in the crook of the arm. Mobiles and smaller machines, some bespoke designed, do not have the screen to handle high resolution pictures and diagrams, such as if, for example, dealing with gas lines or electricity lines, you would really want the most exact, clearest map possible. The big problem was that none of the models back in 2002 were ruggedized so we couldn't take them into the field with us, which is also where using a stylus is preferable rather than greasy, muddy fingers!

    "the netbook or the iPhone, devices that are actually as portable as a phone and are as powerful as a PC" - I'll have to call shenanigans on this one! Netbooks and smartphones, even the almighty iPhone, are not as powerful as a PC...

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Was the mistake intentional?

    "Noting like pitching it low for the coming decade, Steve."

    If so then there seems to have been a change in the rules of grammar.

  25. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Thumb Up


    You forgot one.

    Microsoft: Editing XML files is really handy for the medical profession. We should be able to do that.

    But to be honest there's probably *lots* more besides.

    I've long thought of them as the me-too company.

  26. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    A note on "PenWindows"

    The MS term for their "tablet" OS of the time. Basically WIndows with some bolted on modules that allowed Redmond to say "Hey, we do tablets as well. And it runs Windows. Any fule no this is the way forward. You don't want to re-write your apps for that strange new PenPoint thing."

    This story worked and tablet PC mfg's went for it. PenPoint OS became history. Sadly the combination of PenWIndows + tablet hardware of the time was so s&*t *very* few people went for it. Perhaps devs of the time could comment on how well the stylus support elements were implemented. My guess is adequately enough to look useable without *being* useful.

    It'd be interesting to find out what (if any) of those modules still exist in newer versions of Windows. My guess is none.

    A classic MS "Spoiler product." Job done.

    BTW. MS has a substantial equity stake in Apple. Buy Apple -> share dividends -> MS bank account. Now that's what I call a Microsoft Tax.

    Mine's the one with "startup" in the pocket.

  27. Cortland Richmond

    Remember the GriD Convertible?

    It ran a pen enabled Windows 3. Pretty neat gadget -- and I've a prototype somewhere that I bought as scrap when the assets were sold off by a successor firm.

  28. MuppetHater
    Thumb Down

    Wrong wrong wrong wrong

    "Almost"? Really? Has Microsoft's CEO heard of the netbook or the iPhone, devices that are actually as portable as a phone and are as powerful as a PC, but don't have to run Windows?"

    Rubbish! The Iphone 3GS is not as powerful as a modern day PC. See? It's hyperbole like this that will catch up and bite a chunk out of Crapple. Good god people, get a f*cking grip with the iPhone. I have one. I hate it. I truly truly detest it. I hate that:

    * I can only run one app at a time

    * I can't set the alarm to wake me up with a song from my bloody playlist. FAIL!!! Effing fail!!!

    * There is no video functionality. Hello? I had video on my clunky old Nokia in 2002!

    * I can't replace the poxy battery which has run into the ground despite following best practices when charging

    * It talks to me when I sleep. It constantly whispers stuff like "You're a failure" & "You'll never amount to anything with your life" in quite an impressive baritone voice.

    This is why, and I swear by almighty Thor, I will never, ever buy another Apple product. Rant over. Flame on.

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