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Well, it looks like the Tablet PC is in a decline again. Good. It’s about time.

After proclaiming Tablet PCs the greatest thing since sliced bread, Microsoft is backing off them. At WinHEC, Darin Fish, business development manager in Microsoft’s mobile platforms division, said no final decision has been made on whether there will be a mobile version of Longhorn.

Yeah. Right. I take this to mean that Microsoft is giving up on the idea of stand-alone tablets as being a major profit center. The current Tablet operating system, based on Windows XP SP1, is going to have to do.

Microsoft Watch’s Mary Jo Foley also wonders about Microsoft’s commitment to the Tablet PC platform. Click here to read more.

Why? Because business customers don’t want Tablet PCs. The numbers are in, and they show that Tablet PCs are a bomb. In Europe last year, IDC found that 20,000 Tablet PCs sold in the first half of 2003, compared with almost 3 million notebook PCs. Things haven’t gotten much better.

It doesn’t take an Einstein to see why. I can buy an HP Compaq Business Notebook nx5000 (a good mainstream laptop) with a 1.4GHz Mobile Intel Pentium M processor, 512MB RAM, a 40GB hard drive, CD-RW/DVD-ROM, a 56K modem, 10/100 Ethernet, Centrino 802.11b Wi-Fi, Windows XP Pro, a 15-inch XGA active-matrix display and one of the best battery lives I’ve ever seen for $1,400. Or I could buy Fujitsu’s Stylistic ST5000 Tablet PC with about the same features, except only a 1GHz processor and a 20GB bigger hard drive for, drumroll please, about $2,200.

If you buy at the low end, and let’s face it, many businesses and people do, the case against the Tablet PC is even worse. You can get a decent low-end laptop for just around a grand; a low-end tablet that’s not been remaindered runs about two grand.

The real problem for Tablet PCs has always been that there has never—let me repeat myself, never—been a mass market for them. People who think there is one are confusing cool techno toy lust for a market force.

Heck, Tablets aren’t even that good a geek toy. We’ve already seen them three times before—the Go Computer in the early ’90s, the Apple Newton in the mid-90s and Fujitsu Stylistic in the late ’90s—and, like now, people drooled over them … until they tried to use them. And every time, including this time, the fact that handwriting recognition software still can’t cope reliably with how most people write has kept them as a niche product.

I don’t know about you or your customers, but I don’t know anyone who wants to relearn how to write for a blasted computer. I’ve tried four different Tablets in the last year, and regardless of processor power, memory or how careful I was with my handwriting, none of them could reliably read my printing or writing. I haven’t met a keyboard yet that didn’t understand A, B, C when I typed them in.

Now, I’m not saying that there’s no point to Tablet PCs. They’re quite useful and profitable in vertical markets like hospitals and warehouses. Tablet PCs in the mass market though? Forget about it! Microsoft is.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols is the editor of Channel Zone and has been covering the channel for over a decade.