GBM 5 Years of Tablet PC: Operating Systems

Tablet PC Anniversary - A GBM Review

Five years ago, on November 7 2002, Microsoft launched Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. Bill Gates himself was on-hand to launch the new platform at a large press event.


“The launch of the Tablet PC marks an exciting new era of mobile computing that is limited only by the imagination of its users,” Gates said. “The Tablet PC is a great example of how computers are adapting to how people really work, whether they’re taking notes in a meeting, collaborating wirelessly with colleagues or reading on screen. We’re just scratching the surface of what is possible.”

As it comes time to celebrate the 5 Year Anniversary of Tablet PCs, it’s only natural to look at how far we’ve come since that first operating system release. So let’s take a brief walk down the dusty paths of Tablet PC history and look at how far the OS has evolved in five short years.

pre-2002: Although many systems had tried to implement a natural pen-based input system, overall they had met limited success. Noteworthy early pen-based computers included the GO Tablet Computer running GO’s PenPoint OS, Apple Newton and the original IBM ThinkPad 730T. (Yes, the original IBM ThinkPad 730 was, in fact, a pad, not a clamshell notebook computer. That came later, then it rolled back into a convertible Tablet PC. What goes around comes around…)


November 7, 2002: Microsoft launches Windows XP Tablet PC Edition (TPE). I still remember seeing the first Acer TravelMate C100 at WinHEC in 2002. I loved it! The pen seemed so effortless and it recognized my handwriting so well. I started to learn about such features as a Tablet Input Panel – floating, docked at the top of the screen or docked at the bottom of the screen – and Windows Journal. The confusion abounded, though, among most people. The general public didn’t know what to do with it. Does it run regular programs? Is it a computer? How do I use it? Despite some interesting advertising from Acer and other manufacturers who were on the leading edge of Tablet PC production, many consumers were just confused by the simplicity of the new interface. 


Almost immediately, additions to the features of TPE started creeping out of Microsoft in the form of PowerToys. Many of the first Power Toys were merely features that didn’t quite make the cut for inclusion in the main OS release. The first PowerToy I ever installed was the Dictionary Tool. In the early days of TPE, when the handwriting recognition was less robust, the ability to add new words to the custom recognizer dictionary was absolutely imperative. Even now, all of my XP TPE systems have the Dictionary Tool installed. Other popular PowerToys included the Ink Desktop, the Crossword Puzzles, and the Handwriting games. I remember fondly creating my first custom font using My Font Tool. That certainly surprised non-Tablet PC users!

August 25, 2004: Microsoft releases Windows XP Service Pack 2, which includes Tablet PC Edition 2005, originally codenamed Lonestar. Although SP2 included an impressive list of fixes to the original TPE, the biggest feature was the least advertised. With SP2, Microsoft made the fundamental change to view Tablet PC OS as merely a feature of the operating system. This quiet change paved the way for a host of minor differences in the Tabletscape. Tablet PCs began to be marketed as notebooks, with a twist. The changes in the mindset around Tablet PCs certainly changed the subsequent Tablet PCs that were released. Fewer slates, bigger systems, more convertibles.

For me, the change that effected me most was actually a removal. I installed SP2 and… where is my WriteAnywhere?!?! There was a collective outcry as the small community of Tablet PC lovers realized that one of the popular features of TPE was suddenly gone. Many people actually uninstalled SP2 because the couldn’t face not having the WriteAnywhere feature. I bought a copy of ritePen, an excellent inking program by EverNote that also allows one to write anywhere on the screen. It took me two more Tablet PCs and a good year before I finally got used to using the floating TIP. One of the biggest questions of the day was whether the next version of TPE, would bring back WriteAnywhere. Obviously it didn’t.

What definitely did improve with SP2 was handwriting recognition. There were major changes to the actual recognition engine with SP2 and many people, including me, experienced much better handwriting recognition.


The PowerToys got their own updates, including some packaging improvements. US residents got the Experience Pack and the Education Pack, but international residents only got the Enhancement Pack, a sub-set of PowerToys from the Experience and Education Packs that had been internationalized. The biggest change within these packs was to the Snipping Tool which got a new interface.

March 11, 2006: Origami launches and the Ultra-Mobile PC UMPC is born. With the birth of the UMPC, Microsoft made another fundamental change in the Tabletscape with the addition of touchscreen support. In a very short time, larger Tablet PCs with touchscreens began appearing. Systems began getting both bigger and smaller. The UMPC also introduced a new touch based interface that provided some inspirations of the release of Windows Vista.

January 30, 2007: Microsoft releases Windows Vista (finally!) and there is much rejoicing by Tablet PC folk. Another major improvement to the handwriting recognition engine, and finally, I can train the Tablet PC to learn my handwriting! I had received several years of “instruction” from my Tablet PC on how to write in the way that would be recognized best, but now I can train the system. With Vista, Microsoft completed the change to Tablet PC features being “just another feature. Vista enables the Tablet PC features whenever it senses the presence of a supported digitizer. Any system can be a Tablet PC – just add digitizer.

There were many new features in Vista for Tablet PCs, including pen flicks, checkboxes, panning, snipping pen. TIP improvements, and others. For me, the new features have improved the pen experience yet again. When combined with a good Vista capable Tablet PC, Vista provides a strong pen-based experience.

November 2007: The 5 Year Anniversary of the Tablet PC. It’s been a bumpy road at times, but overall the use experience on Tablet PCs has been steadily improving over the five years. Vista Service Pack 1 is on the horizon, currently scheduled for February 2008, and with it, I expect even more improvements to the overall inking experience.


Looking ahead: With the release of the iPhone, Apple has managed to bring the touch experience to a broader audience than had experienced the Tablet PC. I hope that the popularity of the iPhone translates into a broader interest in touch and pen computing in general. Whether Apple decides to release an Apple Tablet PC or not, the iPhone will drive an interest in touch that can only help the Tablet PC and UMPC markets. In other areas, the Linux-based Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs) are also challenging Microsoft’s hold on the pen computing market. This broadening of the operating system marketplace should help to drive a greater availability and market for Tablet PCs, UMPCs, and pen-based computing.

Overall, I’m impressed with the changes that have been wrought in only five years on the market. I can only hope the next five years are as exciting!