September 24, 2002 4:33 PM PDT

Tablet PC speaks in tongues, but not all

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Microsoft's Tablet PC software spricht Deutsch but no habla espanol, at least not yet.

When devices running the specialized operating system hit the market Nov. 7, they'll support English, French, German, Korean, Japanese and both simplified and complex Chinese. However, they won't be able to make heads or tails out of Spanish or Italian, among other languages.

The Tablet PC operating system is a modified version of Microsoft's Windows XP that has been tweaked so users of computers running the OS can operate their machines with a stylus instead of a mouse and keyboard. Microsoft released the first version of the software to hardware makers earlier this year, with the goal of having devices available by this year's holiday buying season.

The software giant has been touting the idea of pen-based computing for years and has been pitching Tablet PC at the past two Fall Comdex trade shows.

Microsoft does not expect handwriting input to replace the keyboard, at least when it comes to languages like English. But the software giant does see a value in giving mobile workers the ability to enter free-form notes.

"I believe you can type faster than you can ink," Microsoft Group Vice President Jeff Raikes said in an interview. "What you can't do is you can't be as expressive."

When it comes to Asian languages, though, pen-based computing takes on a level of practicality. Microsoft's initial choice of languages reflects the heightened need to find a better way than keyboards to enter many Asian languages into a computer. Entering a single character in Korean, Chinese or Japanese typically requires multiple keystrokes.

Many companies, including Microsoft, IBM and Intel, among others, are focusing on Asia for their research on natural interfaces such as speech and handwriting recognition.

As for the languages that are not included, Raikes said it's nothing personal. Microsoft is releasing Tablet PC in the languages in which its handwriting recognition databases are the strongest.

"The recognition takes years to develop in a given language," Raikes said.

Because some have questioned how broad the market is for devices that rely on handwriting as a primary form of input, many hardware makers are opting for devices that can also work as a traditional laptop with a built-in keyboard. Microsoft's initial prototype relied on an on-screen software keyboard; later prototypes worked as regular notebooks but could be turned into a tablet with a twist of the screen.

Acer and HP are developing such convertible devices. Fujitsu is also planning some type of Tablet PC device, and Microsoft says Toshiba is considering one as well.

 

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