Just-released operating systems power the home and office

    by Alan Zisman (c) 2002 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #683 November 26- December 2, 2002 High Tech Office column

    Having given the world Windows XP just last fall, you would think this season might be a quiet time for the elves who develop operating systems in Bill Gates' Microsoft workshops somewhere south of the North Pole in Redmond, Wash.

    But ramping up to the Christmas season, the jolly elves have obviously been busy. Earlier in the season, they released the free Service Pack 1 for Windows XP, rolling together a host of previously released security and bug fixes with new hardware drivers. Some large businesses wait for the first service pack release for any major Microsoft product as a sign that enough of the problems have been worked out that it's safe to deploy.

    But November also saw the release of two new XP derivatives, each hoping to expand the otherwise stagnant market for computers in a new direction.

    Neither of these new versions is available as an upgrade for ordinary users. Both Windows XP Media Center Edition and Tablet PC Edition are only available on dedicated hardware.

    As the name suggests, Media Center Edition is aimed more at the home living room than the office. Powering HP's $2,599 Media Center PC, it's the latest twist on Microsoft's long-standing desire to make PCs central to the home entertainment experience. Take a Pentium 4-powered Windows XP PC and add an interface with large text readable from a distance, a remote control, TV tuner, DVD burner, large hard disk and the ability to record and playback video and audio.

    There are some nice features: walk in while recording a show and you can start watching it from the beginning while continuing to record the rest. Many of these features have been available separately. Canada-based ATI's All-in-Wonder add-in video card, for instance, has long included a TV tuner, sophisticated recording capabilities and even a remote control. I suspect that many users will be hesitant to replace the TV in the den with a PC. Intel CEO Paul Otellini calls Media Center PC "perfect for students and other consumers who are media-hungry but space-constrained."

    If the Media Center Edition targets the home, or at least the college dorm, Tablet Edition is aimed squarely at business users. Microsoft's market is "corridor warriors," employees who spend much of their day roaming between meetings. Typing on a notebook in a meeting is distracting, so instead, meeting-goers write on pads of paper, later entering their notes into their PCs.

    Windows XP Tablet Edition and a new generation of portable computers offer corridor warriors the chance to replace the $1.99 legal pad (or fancier leather-like binder) with a $3,500, next-generation PC. To make a computer work like a pad of paper, Microsoft had to integrate "digital ink" into its software, both by letting programs include diagrams and handwriting scrawled on the screen and by attempting to translate handwriting into computer-readable text.

    Handwriting recognition isn't new. Apple's Newton was the butt of jokes a decade ago at the same time that Microsoft announced (and then failed to follow up on) Pen Windows. But a decade's development makes a difference: Tablet Edition did a pretty good (though not perfect) job of translating both my printing and my script.

    I recently spent two weeks with Acer's Travelmate C100 tablet, one of 10 recently released systems running Tablet Edition. Details on it and life with Tablet Edition next week.

    No one's predicting that either Windows Media Center or Tablet Edition will take over the home or business markets right away, but Bill Gates is bullish. He's predicting, for example, that within five years, most PCs sold will include stylus input and handwriting recognition.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan