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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Things that should just work – my smart phone

Ok – so I got a new toy this week: a Palm Treo 700wx smart phone. I have never been a really big fan of the whole smart phone/blackberry kind of thing, mostly because I am rarely away from a computer long enough to need another eMail device. But, the company was upgrading our cell phones, and since I do not really use a phone much (I think I get about 4 calls/year), I decided to go for something that could do something other than talk. I also figured it would give me a chance to do some Windows Mobile development experiments. I have had the device for 3 days now, and I really like the form factor/engineering of it. Unfortunately, I have not had a chance to do much else with it, other than look at it.

Our provider has not yet figured out how to hook it in to either their voice or data network (even though they supplied the phone).

So, while I was waiting for that to work, I decided to play with it from the local side, by hooking it up to my PC. That is when I hit another problem. The install kit for the phone does not recognize Windows Vista (which I am running). After a bit of digging, I realized that I do not need to install the ActiveSync software, as Vista has the Windows Mobile Device Center. So, I download that, get it installed, and plug my phone into the USB port. Windows recognizes the new device on the port and proceeds to install the drivers. All seems happy. I launch the Mobile Device Center. Unfortunately, my phone does not show up as connected. I spent a significant amount of time playing with it yesterday – working through various troubleshooting guides I have found. Still no luck.

This should not be this hard. To me, this is in the category of “things that should just work” – especially since both devices are running versions of Windows. Maybe I expect too much.

I will repeat myself on this…

This should just work!

PS – anybody who has made this work, please leave me a comment with any suggestions you might have!

 PPS – why are data plans so insanely expensive in Canada, compared to the US? It cannot just be market size – is it just because they can get away with it?

My Tablet PC World (part 2)

So, on to my current Tablet PC setup. I am currently using a Motion Computing LE1600 running Vista Ultimate, Office 2007 (including OneNote) and MindManager Pro 6. I have loved this computer since the day I got it. It is obvious that I have a preference for slate tablets. The work that I do on a tablet is in tablet mode. I also have a laptop for doing development and other high load actvities, so I guess I am spoiled (though it is a pain carrying both around when I travel). The way I use my tablet at work is this:

  • In meetings, or when brainstorming, researching, designing, etc., I use my LE1600 as a tablet, and work almost exclusively in OneNote, MindManager, and IE;
  • When I am at a desk, I have a stand for my LE1600 (note that the LE1600 does not come with a stand – what I ended up buying was a desktop book stand from a library/bookstore supplier), as well as a Bluetooth keyboard/mouse. Since I have a wireless network, I can just place my tablet on the stand, use it at my desk, and then grab it and take it to a meeting, etc.
  • I try very hard to never plug my tablet into anything – to me it sort of defeats the purpose. I have a regular and an extended battery with my LE1600, as well as a second extended battery and a charger. This way, I just keep hot swapping the extended batteries, and keeping the other charging. This also means that when I moving around, I can have 7-9 hoursof battery life. This is one reason I prefer the slate to a convertible – I find convertibles have battery lifetimes more characteristic of a laptop – and I wanted more.

Really the only complaint I have ever had with my LE1600 is with the power connector. Very early on, the connector where the power supply plugs into the tablet developed connection problems, to the point that the unit will not charge or run off AC. This ceased to matter when I got the spare battery and charger, but was part of my reason for doing so. I should point out that I had the exact same problem with my TC1000 – I had it repaired twice by Compaq, and it always came back. it just seems to be an inherent problem with a computer you are moving around like a tablet (I would be interested to hear if anyone else has had similar problems with other brands of tablet).

There are other applications which I have used with the tablet, but OneNote and MindManager are the main ones. What would I like to see? As I said before, better ink support in Office, IE, and in Windows in general would be great (yes, Vista is an improvement, but the ink support still feels like it is pasted on top of the “real” mode of interaction – I do not know what “better” looks like, or I would have written it!). I would also like to see more ink-aware applications. I think there have been two big challenges to this in the past – one being the development support on the tablet, and the second being marketing of the tablet platform in general. I will not get into either of these now, I think both warrant their own posts. I would also like to see improved voice input on the tablet – I would love to be able to just dictate documents into Word or PowerPoint, and have the results be worth the effort. This has come a long way in the last few years, but does not seem to be quite there yet.

There are several very cool tablet accessories out there, some of which I have tried and just never gotten round to buying. One worth mentioning is InkGestures from Jumping Minds. I suspect I will buy a copy of this as soon as there is a version for Word 2007.

My Tablet PC World (part 1)

As I said before, I am a really big fan of Tablet PCs. They fulfill a vision I had almost 20 years ago about what a great form factor for a personal computer would be. So, I thought I would talk a bit about my experiences with Tablets.

My first Tablet PC was a Compaq TC1000 that I got back in 2003. Despite the fact that it was pretty underpowered for what I do, I absolutely loved it. Well, maybe that is not entirely true. At first, I found it a little awkward, and I found some aspects of it disappointing. I was mostly disappointed about how hard it was to do everyday things like wirte a Word document or create a presentation by writing and having it convert to text.

What I ended up doing was to get rid of all my other computers. I had no desktop computer, no laptop, and I even got rid of my keyboard for a while. I worked this way for about 6 months. What this forced me to do was to learn how best to accomplish my work in a tablet environment.

The first thing I learned is that converting writing to text was not the best way to work on the tablet (at least not for what I do). Microsoft OneNote became my number one application. Much of my work relates to research, idea generation, and meetings, and OneNote has been the centre of it for 4+ years now. I have also been using MindJet’s MindManager for several years now, and I use it almost as much as OneNote.

I also learned that I had to break out of our modern tendancy to format things as we go. I know that I have always had a tendancy to try to make things pretty as I go. The tablet has forced me to focus on getting ideas down – dumping my thoughts, so to speak. Then, if I convert it to text at some point, I can edit and format it (actually, if I am smart, I pass it on to someone much more adept than I am at making things pretty).

My biggest disappointment has been (and remains) the lack of integration of pen interaction with the main tools in office work – Internet Explorer and the Microsoft Office suite. It should be much simpler to do simple things like create a document, edit a spreadsheet, send an eMail, perform a web search, without reverting to the TIP (which I hate, for the most part). It should also be easier for a left handed person to work (why is OneNote the only Office application that lets you switch the scroll bar on the left hand side?)

That’s all for now – in my next post I will talk about my current setup, and things I would like to see in the Tablet PC world.

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