Over two years ago, I described Windows XP Tablet PC Edition as "the best Windows yet" but wondered whether anyone would use it. The reason for that question was the hardware: The first generation of Tablet PCs was underpowered, with slow Pentium III-based microprocessors, and featured paltry battery life. Still, XP Tablet PC was an impressive accomplishment, I noted, a true superset of XP Professional with well designed additional features aimed at the unique features of Tablet PCs.

These features, and the very devices that enable them, still have yet to take off in volume as I write this in late summer 2004. Despite this, there are signs that Tablet PCs--or at the very least, notebook computers that provide Tablet PC-like functionality--will, at some point, become mainstream portable products. In this review of Microsoft's latest operating system release for Tablet PCs, I'll examine the evolution of Microsoft's Tablet PC software since that initial software release, and the directions it will take in the future, and look at the new features in Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 (codenamed Lonestar). If you're interested in a look back at where the Tablet PC came from, please refer to my review of the original XP Tablet PC Edition.

Two years after Windows XP Tablet PC Edition was first released, it still stands as the most powerful operating system you can get for portable devices. But the question remains: Will anyone use it?

The Tablet PCs come of age

My general disgust with the first generation of Tablet PC hardware in 2002 notwithstanding, there was relief in sight: In 2003, Intel released an all-new mobile platform, the Centrino, which featured an all-new x86-compatible mobile microprocessor called the Pentium-M. This hardware platform solved many of the problems of the Tablet PC, thanks to its excellent performance and battery life. But just as important to the platform, PC makers started coming up with innovative new designs, and Tablet PCs quickly moved beyond the ultra-mobile subnotebook category that dominated the first generation of hardware. Starting in 2003, it was possible to buy both convertible and slate-style Tablet PCs in a variety of shapes and sizes. In this way, the Tablet PC evolved to be a true superset of the wider notebook market.

By late 2003, it was possible to purchase convertible Tablet PCs with 10, 12, 14, and 15 inch screens, and some models, such as the second generation Toshiba M200 Tablet PC, featured resolutions higher than the 1024 x 768 standard (1400 x 1050 in the case of the Toshiba). These machines offered the same processing power and battery life as their non-Tablet PC equivalents, and often cost just a few hundred dollars more, effectively ending the price premium from which first generation Tablet PC buyers suffered. Tablet PCs even started coming in on the low end of the market, with $1000 models announced (though they didn't ship until summer 2004 and were closer in price to $1300, but still far cheaper than all first generation Tablet PCs). Other PC makers plotted smaller Tablet PCs with 7- or 8-inch screens which would blur the line between PDA and PC, though I have yet to see such a device.

As of this writing, it's possible to purchase a reasonably priced Tablet PC that offers all of the power of a comparable notebook computer with the added versatility of the Tablet PC OS' unique Digital Ink capabilities. Finally, in 2004, businesses and consumers started turning to Tablet PCs as viable notebook alternatives. And why not? All of the purchase blockers, from what I can see, have been addressed. Still, Microsoft has loftier goals for its premium portable operating system than a small slice of the market. And for that to happen, Tablet PCs--and the software that runs on them--will have to leave their niche behind and enter the mainstream. Not surprisingly, the software giant has a plan to make that happen.

Tablet PCs to the future

In late 2003, Microsoft reorganized its business yet again. Part of that reorganization saw the Tablet PC team become part of a wider Mobile Platforms Division, which is now responsible for spearheading the development of the company's mobile operating systems, applications, services, and tools. In case it's not obvious, this change also means that Microsoft is serious about getting its Tablet PC innovations into every product where it makes sense. Thus, it's pretty clear that, eventually, the Tablet PC OS will go away, and those features will simply start be included in other Windows versions. For that to happen, however, mainstream portable computers will also need to start picking up features from today's Tablet PC hardware.

"We wanted to focus more on the mobile PC, and not just the Tablet PC," Darin Fish, the Business Development Manager of the Mobile Platforms Division said in May. "What we found, working on the Tablet PC, was that much of the platform work we've been doing [could be] benefiting all mobile PCs. The challenge is actually getting [that technology] to all mobile PCs. We have one team focused on mobile PC fundamentals, and another team that's focused on pen and [Digital] Ink."

The roadmap for this is straightforward. In 2003, the Tablet PC was a new type of notebook computer, separate and distinct from other mobile PCs. By 2004, with the release of new Tablet PCs based on Intel's Pentium-M/Centrino platform, Tablet PCs had become true supersets of notebook computers, making most Tablet PCs notebooks that have additional tablet functionality. Through 2005, the Tablet PC software will start to be incorporated into mainstream notebooks. And then, in 2006 and beyond, there will be mobile PCs for every customer need, with form factors and features that maximize computing.

Part of that evolution will require a future version of Tablet PC Edition that will ship in the Longhorn time frame (and might have a different name). With Longhorn, the Mobile Platforms Division hopes to augment its Tablet PC software with enhanced power management features, auxiliary displays, multi-display support, a new Mobility Center front-end for smaller devices, and additional features. I've previewed some of these technologies in my WinHEC 2004 Longhorn Prototypes Gallery.

Anyway, that's all a few years down the road. Today, we have an exciting, evolutionary upgrade to Windows XP Tablet PC Edition that significantly enhances Microsoft's premier mobile platform. Let's take a look.

Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005: Evolutionary genius

In November 2003, Microsoft announced the next version of its Tablet PC software, which was then codenamed Lonestar. I had previewed this product, which was eventually renamed to Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005, at the Professional Developers Conference 2003 the October, though the company was focusing largely on the next generation Tablet PC SDK, a set of tools for developers, at the time. Lonestar quickly developed into an important release. Though the first version of the Tablet PC OS was, by all measures, an excellent release, customers had been asking Microsoft to improve the software in subtle ways. So Lonestar was born, a free OS upgrade that the company originally planned to ship to customers in the first half of 2005 (it eventually shipped as part of Windows XP Service Pack 2, as described below).

"With Lonestar, we're going to focus on two key areas," Peter Loforte, Microsoft's Tablet PC General Manager told me last fall. "First, the Digital Ink to text experience will be more native and natural, with a new Tablet Input Panel will make it more natural to use Ink across any windows applications. Second, in Windows itself, the [Tablet PC's] pen will be a more natural input mechanism, where users will be able to think about it in the same way as the mouse and keyboard. You can use the pen when it's the most appropriate--for annotating, and so on--and it will be a superset on top of the keyboard and mouse."

I've been using a beta version of Lonestar since last December, and Microsoft publicly shipped updates to that code in the release candidate versions of Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) earlier this year; Tablet PC users can get the final version of XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 free by simply downloading and installing XP SP2. As with the initial release of the Tablet PC OS, Lonestar is of exceptionally high quality, and always has been: Even the early beta releases I saw late last year worked well and offered obvious advantages over the initial release. But now that the software is shipping in final form, it's time to examine the new features.

TIP of the day: Rocking with the new In-place Tablet Input Panel

In the first release of XP Tablet PC, Microsoft created a Tablet Input Panel (TIP) that could be used to interact with non-Tablet PC applications (i.e. every application on the planet) using the pen and Digital Ink. The TIP was tethered to the bottom of the screen, however: When you need to input text, say into the Internet Explorer Address Bar or a eb form, you'd have to manually click the TIP icon in the taskbar (if the TIP was hidden) and then start writing (Figure). This worked well enough, with one problem: Because the TIP was tethered to the bottom of the screen, you'd have to move the pen back and forth constantly between it and the application that needed input. On forms-based applications or Web sites, especially, this could be extremely laborious. And because the TIP was a fixed size, it was hard to enter long strings of text efficiently.

Now, in XP Tablet PC Edition 2005, the TIP has been extensively updated and is, as a result, far more useable. When you select a user interface element in a legacy Windows application (again, just about any application on the planet) that supports text entry, a new TIP Access button appears just below the point on the screen that you can tap with the stylus (Figure). If you tap the TIP Access button, which visually resembles an overly large Office XP/2003 Smart Tag, the TIP appears, in place, as a floating window, right by your stylus (Figure). That means that you won't have to break your wrist moving back and forth between the text entry field in the application you're using and the TIP.

By making the TIP a floating window that can follow your stylus around the screen, Tablet PC users will no longer need to keep the TIP open all the time at the bottom of the screen, wasting valuable screen real estate. And that's fantastic, because the new TIP, like its predecessor, supports every Windows application ever created, right out of the box. But the TIP improvements don't stop there.

Real-time recognition and in-place correction

The new TIP also supports an exciting new feature called real-time recognition. Previously, when you handwrote text into the TIP, the Tablet PC handwriting recognition engine wouldn't kick in until you were done writing, and you'd have to go back and make corrections after the fact. Now, Microsoft's handwriting technology translates your chicken scratches on the fly, using a small space at the bottom of the TIP's Writing Pad area to preview each letter you've written, as you write (Figure). This way, you'll know whether the system has correctly translated your writing before you post it to the application. And as you add more and more text, the new TIP also resizes on the fly (Figure) to accommodate you, which is simply wonderful, and very natural.

But what happens when the handwriting recognition fails? In V1, you had to select any incorrect text in the application and then correct in manually, which could be tedious. There are numerous ways to accomplish this too, almost an embarrassment of riches.

Let's say you're using the TIP in Writing Pad mode, which is the default. As you enter text into the TIP, it is translating your text on the fly. But look, you've found a problem. Simply click on the text its translated and a new window pops up (Figure), showing you various alternatives; you can pick the one that's right, manually edit any letter, add the new term to the system dictionary, or even teach the system to learn that word to be something specific. Then, just click OK to accept the changes and keep writing into the TIP if you'd like. This all happens before any text is transmitted to the application.

But maybe you'd prefer one of the TIP's other modes. Like the orginal version of the Tablet PC software, XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 supports an onscreen keyboard. But it also features a new Character Pad mode (Figure) that is unique to this version and may be appealing to many users. With Character Pad, you enter text one character at a time, and those characters are recognized and converted to text as you write (Figure). If you discover a mistake, you can simply write over the offending character (Figure) or you can select a drop-down list and choose the correct character from that list (Figure). When you're done, click Insert.

Contextual smarts and developer improvements

Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 also supports a cool new feature called contextual awareness, which developers will need to manually support in order to see the benefits. However, this feature doesn't require developers to rewrite their applications; instead, developers can simply add an XML file to the installation directory of their applications to support this feature (this is sort of an advanced topic, so interested software developers should check out the MSDN Web site for more details). Here's what it does: A compatible application can specify what type of input it expects on a form element by form element basis, filtering out other types of input, and improving text recognition. So consider a standard forms-based application, where you might enter name, address, and ZIP Code information. In the name fields, the application would know to only accept letters, so the handwriting recognition engine would filter out non-letter characters. In the state field, the application would know to only look for state names (e.g. Massachusetts) and/or abbreviations (e.g. MA), dramatically limiting what needs to be recognized. And so on.

Contextual awareness is hard to demonstrate in a text-based review, but it's excellent in a demo. In the aforementioned example, you can write a scribble that only vaguely resembles the word "Massachusetts" into a text field that is designed to accept only state names, but it works fine because of the input filtering. And since this feature is very easy to add to existing applications, there's no reason for application vendors--especially those who make vertical applications for Tablet PC-wielding users--not to support this crucial feature.

Speaking of developers, XP Tablet PC Edition also shipped alongside a new Tablet PC Software Development Kit (SDK), version 1.7, which includes the contextual awareness technology and a host of other new features aimed at making more elegant Tablet PC applications. You can find this SDK on the Microsoft Web site.

Better Office integration

When Microsoft shipped the original version of XP Tablet PC in late 2002, it also shipped an add-on for Office XP called the Tablet PC Office Pack for Microsoft Office XP which let certain Office XP applications--Word, Outlook, and PowerPoint--interact somewhat seamlessly with the Tablet's pen and Digital Ink features. This add-on is still available and works fine with XP Tablet PC Edition 2005, but users of the newer Office 2003 family of products will not need an add-on; that suite was designed to work elegantly with the Tablet PC from the ground up, and the Word, Outlook, PowerPoint, and Excel 2003 application all feature native support for text insertion and annotation via the Tablet PC's stylus.

Most impressive, however, is the new OneNote 2003 application (which recently shipped with a much improved SP1 update that I'll cover here on the SuperSite soon). OneNote 2003 is a note-taking application on steroids, and it natively supports Digital Ink and the Tablet PC out of the box. With OneNote 2003, you can take notes in your normal handwriting, more closely emulating the way you take notes in a real notebook. You can also move around its virtual page at will, scribble diagrams and drawings, and utilize all the pen types of colors to which you're accustomed.

Delivering Lonestar

Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 is available for free to all Tablet PC users. To get the upgrade, simply download and install Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2), via Windows Update, Automatic Updates, or a manual download from the Microsoft Web site. XP Tablet PC Edition will also be promoted heavily as part of the XP Reloaded marketing campaign, which begins September 2. "XP Reloaded is a marketing campaign you're going to hear a lot about, Fish said in May. "[XP Tablet PC Edition 2005] will be a part of that. We think there's a unique opportunity to take advantage of the retail channel and their coverage of Microsoft in terms of awareness and driving people into the stores to [see] Tablet PCs and Media Center PCs."

Conclusions

What can I say? With Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005, the best mobile operating system has gotten even better. If you're an existing Tablet PC owner, you need to download and install XP SP2 as soon as possible, in order to get both the security benefits of that upgrade and the exciting new features in XP Tablet PC Edition 2005. Thanks to the vastly improved Tablet Input Panel on the software side, and an amazing new array of innovative and varied Tablet PC hardware, it's pretty obvious that 2004 will be remembered as year the Tablet PC came of age. If you're in the market for a notebook computer, it's time to consider a Tablet PC. In time, this once skeptical reviewer will be but one of the many users converted to the platform.