Microsoft is hoping to debut its TabletPC sometime in 2002 with the device being sold by manufacturers at ‘notebook prices,’ key members of the Microsoft development announced at the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas yesterday.

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates unveiled the first public showing of a TabletPC prototype during his keynote address.

The company has been working in earnest since July of last year on the device, which will be manufactured by vendors, according to Alex Loeb, general manager of Microsoft's TabletPC.

The hardware draws on Microsoft technology such as handwriting recognition which has been in development at the software giant’s HQ in Seattle for a number of years, she added.

"We're keeping our fingers crossed that the device appears sometime in 2002," Loeb said. "It's a lot of work." In terms of the identities of the TabletPC manufacturers, the major laptop manufacturers are the most likely suspects, she added, with the device costing around the same price as laptops.

Microsoft is also intending to include its speech-recognition technology in TabletPC devices from "day one," according to Loeb. "My theory is that there's a very vocal minority who want speech," she said. The company may also use speech as another user interface for the devices, Loeb added.

Currently, there are a couple of hundred TabletPC prototypes in existence and Microsoft is already talking to vendors about the devices, Loeb said.

Microsoft's core TabletPC development team is about 100 people, but factoring in the company's use of its other technologies in the device, the number of company staff involved in the project is anywhere between several hundred and a thousand employees, she added.

Microsoft eventually plans to use the TabletPC technology to create whiteboard-sized devices, but development is not yet underway, according to Loeb.

Charlton Lui, Microsoft's development manager for TabletPC, said that the device will also run games and will operate as a full-function laptop.

He mentioned that Microsoft research had revealed that over 50 percent of people get irritated by the noise their colleagues make when typing on their laptops at meetings, a problem TabletPC resolves since users handwrite onto the device using a stylus.