Microsoft's tablet PC is built around a simple idea -- let people enter data by writing on the screen instead of pounding a keyboard -- but it's been launched into a market that's seen its share of shipwrecks.
Even Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates, who touted the tablet as "a whole new way of experiencing the PC," had to acknowledge that handwriting-recognition software has a troubled past.
"It's almost painful to recall what the result of those products was," Gates said on a New York stage Thursday as he gave a graveyard tour of defunct technologies, such as Apple Computer Inc.'s Newton. Microsoft offered handwriting-recognition software, Windows for Pen Computing, in 1992 but quickly dropped it.
Despite the ominous precedents, Gates argued that the time has come for a product such as the tablet PC, because of advances in battery life, processor power, LCD screens and character-recognition software.
At the launch event in New York, Gates and other Microsoft executives showed tablet PC hardware from such manufacturers as Fujitsu and Hewlett-Packard, then trotted out two converts to the cause.
Author Amy Tan said she's been using a tablet PC to jot notes on her latest manuscript, and actor Rob Lowe demonstrated how he uses a tablet to read and take notes on scripts.
Offstage, away from the party, reaction to tablet PCs was mixed.
"I like the concept of them," said Stephen Baker, analyst at NPD Intelect. "Are they going to be a hit right off the bat? No, but the key thing to look at with these products is they're trying something new. We're looking at a stagnant market and we need some niches to grow."
A report issued Wednesday by Gartner Dataquest predicted that 1 percent of the notebook computers sold next year, about 425,000, will be tablet PCs.
There are notable absences from the lineup of tablet PC manufacturers. Dell isn't making one, and International Business Machines Corp., which owns a large chunk of the corporate laptop business with its ThinkPad line, is also sitting out.
"Our customers haven't demonstrated an overwhelming desire for IBM to produce a tablet PC," said Ray Gorman, a spokesman for the company.
Ted Clark, vice president of new notebook business at HP, argued that if customers aren't clamoring for the tablet PC yet, it's because they haven't tried one.
"This is making your notebook adapt to the way you work better than your current notebook," he said. "I can use it while talking face-to-face with somebody, open it up in front of a client during a negotiation and it's not obtrusive in a way that opening up a notebook would be. That's the key thing that we see that some of our competitors don't."
One local gadgetphile voted for the tablet PC with his checkbook. Shawn Googins, one of the founders of a local Palm user group, got to try a prototype of Acer's tablet PC several months ago and was impressed enough to order one this week.
"Why buy a laptop when your typical laptop doesn't have the capability that the tablet PCs do?" he said.