Charles Arthur on technology

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The Independent Online

It's nearly a year since I announced "this week's hostage to fortune" - which was Bill Gates who in 2001 brandished a tablet-style PC at the Comdex exhibition and announced that "within five years, I predict that [this format] will be the most popular form of PC sold in America".

Ho hum. And now the reality check: Tablet PC sales are lower than forecast. In January, the researcher Context said they made a "good start", with 1 per cent of European portable sales, despite being available for only part of the three months measured. But IDC reckon that only 425,000 units will be sold this year.

And now, Context has decided that the sales peaked in April, then fell in May and June; there was a rise of 16.7 per cent in July, but interestingly the average price fell by 16.7 per cent too, which makes it look like the effect of some price-cutting. The overall effect is that the final numbers for this year might disappoint even those working to IDC's forecasts.

So is the Tablet going to the great computer design graveyard? Probably not, because it is selling very well to a number of specialist markets, like health care and some financial institutions. The tougher question is, are we all (and here I mean all) going to be using Tablet-style machines?

Well, what's good about them? People like being able to write notes on them - apparently handwritten email is the new thing. They like the portability; and not having to use a keyboard, especially in social situations when a monitor is a barrier.

What's bad about them? There's the trickiness of the pen that you "write" with - because you know you'll lose it, and it's not just a piece of plastic but an item as electronically complex as a mouse. The weight of the machine can be a hassle, and battery life, too (though the Intel Centrino chips helps here). And even if it's not a screen and monitor, it's still not a piece of paper, so you're still interacting with a computer, with the attendant lack of attention to everything else. And the prices are still far too high compared with standard laptops.

There is one other factor: there are a lot of keyboards out there, and people have long since learned to use them effortlessly. And even a Tablet never has trouble understanding your typing - unlike your handwriting.

Steve Jobs, the head of Apple, said at a conference back in May that his company has no plans to make a tablet, despite all the hype. "It turns out people want keyboards. When Apple first started out, people couldn't type. We realized: Death would eventually take care of this."

Say one thing for Mr Jobs: he's blunt. He concluded: "We look at the tablet and we think it's going to fail. Tablets appeal to rich guys with plenty of other PCs and devices already. And people accuse us of niche markets."

Even though notebooks are gradually catching up on desktops (about one-quarter of sales), I can't see the tablet dominating. I'd rather type these words than handwrite them - the result of more than 20 years of typing. Mr Gates, I'm afraid the hostage has been taken and no ransom will bring it back.