The Future of the Tablet PC

I have been reading a number of recent posts/articles/announcements regarding the future (and past) or Tablet PCs, including Don’t look now, but Tablet PCs are on the rise, Sorry Geeks: Tablet PCs Still Can’t Beat Regular Pen & Paper, and Dell Confirms Plans to Enter Tablet PC Market. Before I comment on some of this stuff, I want to make a few things clear about myself and my attitude about pen-based computing:

  1. I love the idea of pen-based computing. The Tablet PC fulfills a vision I have had since the late 80s of the way I would like to work with a computer (I still have the sketches I made of it back in 87).
  2. Working with a pen requires (sometimes significant) changes to the way you work. Trying to use the exact same approach as with your laptop or desktop will only frustrate you. For example, I would never try to input a Word document in Tablet mode, using the TIP. I can type much more quickly than that.
  3. I do not believe that the pen-based approach is desirable for all computing needs. There are a lot of applications for which a keyboard is the only way to go. There are others which could benefit from a better approach than a keyboard, but a pen is not it.
  4. I do not believe that pen-based technology (especially the OS and the application software) is mature. There are a lot of features I would like to see in software to make the pen-based experience complete.

Reading many people’s opinions on the tablet, I am frequently baffled. They claim to have constant problems inking, and with handwriting recognition. I have been using a tablet pretty much since the first models came out. My first was Compaq TC1000. I now have a Motion LE 1600. I am looking forward to my next one. I started with Windows XP Tablet PC Edition in 2003, and now use Windows Vista. I have never had any significant problems inking, or with handwriting recognition. I will admit that I had to get used to the mechanics of writing on the screen. While I keep hoping for better integration of the pen and tablet form into the OS, the basics are there. Also, one of the posts mentioned problems inking on a touch screen UMPC – I have wondered about that myself. Being left-handed, I drag my hand across everything I write – I wonder how that would affect my ability to use a touch screen device.

I also notice that some posts say something like “Office 2007 was designed from top to bottom with tablet users in mind”. Huh? One of my big complaints against Microsoft’s support of the Tablet PC is that Office is essentially ignorant of the Tablet. Yes, I can ink overtop of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and other Office documents. But this ink is “dumb” – Office really knows nothing about it. The ink is not attached to the contents in any meaningful way. And there is no way to work with these annotations. In addition, there is no support for gestures in Office for editing documents. Other than OneNote, none of the Office applications even recognize that some Table users are left-handed, and leave the scroll bar inconveniently located on the right. How can Microsoft expect other software developers to support the Tablet form factor when they do not ever support it in their flagship product?

I still firmly believe that the greatest barrier to the Tablet PC’s success (actually, I believe it already is successful) is marketing, not technology. From the very beginning, the Tablet PC has had an extremely low profile outside of the tech community. There has been almost no push in the consumer market – in fact, almost all of the marketing has presented the Tablet as a niche product in a couple of primary verticals (like health care). Even now, some 5 years after the initial release, I still get looks of astonishment from people who see my LE1600. For an industry driven by hype, the Tablet PC has been one of the most under-hyped products I can remember.

Also consider marketing to the developer community. The SDK for the Tablet PC is at best arcane. There has been a significant lack of high-level tool support. And developer documentation has been limited. The success of any computing platform is driven by third-party products. You do not win at this game by making things more difficult than necessary for your developer community.

All of this aside, I remain a firm believer in the viability of a pen-based platform. Its biggest enemy might be a marketing plan of limited vision. The announcement by Dell that they are releasing a tablet model is a very good sign. So, what would I do to improve the future? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Create a strong, aggressive marketing plan to let people know what the Tablet is, and what it can do.
  • Push the tablet hard in the general market, not just in verticals.
  • Court the developer community. Create better development tools.
  • Help subsidize the hardware costs until the penetration becomes high enough to get economies of scale to kick in.

It is easy to bash a new technology or a new approach because it is different from your comfortable way of working. It is easy to bash it just because it is generally safer to do so. It is tougher to stand up and sell people on a new idea. If Microsoft is not going to sell people on the Tablet PC vision, who will?


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