RIP to my favourite computer

Well, it has finally happened. My favourite computer (the best I have ever used, actually) has finally died. As I have noted before, for many years now my Motion Computing LE1600 slate has been the centre of my computing toolkit. About the only thing I do not use it for is programming – pretty much everything else I do (or did) on my tablet.

Sadly, after 5 years, the batteries have all died. While I will try to get new batteries, I am not hopeful that I can get them at a reasonable cost.

What is really disappointing to me is that there is nothing out there which which to replace it. Motion Computing has discontinued the LE1600/LE1700, and the only similar product is the J3400 which is overkill for my needs. The offerings from Fujitsu and others in the slate space are all several years old, and far over priced for what they now offer.

And then there are the many new and pending products in the slate space – the iPad, as well as offerings from HP and many others. As slick as some of these new devices look, and as attractive as the pricing is on them, it appears that my worst fears have been realized and most of the new generation of slates are dumbed-down consumer devices, with no real support for ink input which is, as I have said before, crucial to my use of the platform.

Ah well – time to search for batteries. 

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The Future of the Tablet PC (does it have one?)

Reading a post by Loren Heiny, Will the Tablet PC find a new advocate?, got me thinking (again) about the future of the Table PC – more worrying about whether the Tablet even has a future. I am worried that because of the complete mess Microsoft has made of marketing the tablet platform, without Bill’s continued visible support behind it, the Tablet will either disappear, or be relegated to a very narrow niche product.

I think I have mentioned (over and over) that I am a big fan of the Tablet PC. I think that in many respects it is far more innovative than anything to come out of Apple in the last 10 years or so. And in terms of the industry as a whole, it has opened up both a hardware and potential software market well beyond Microsoft (take note of that all you Apple fans – what has the ultimate closed source community at Apple produced that has benefited any business other than Apple?).

The problem now, of course, is that the Tablet is old news. It is 5 years old, has not lived up to early predictions that soon “every laptop sold will be a Tablet” (though in real terms has been reasonably successful), there is a shortage of really “tablet specific” or even “tablet aware” applications (notable exceptions of course are OneNote and MindJet MindManager). It has really missed the boat on the hype cycle it could have generated. And now, the primary champion of the platform, Bill himself, is no longer involved in day-to-day operations at Microsoft.

So, whither the Tablet PC? Loren makes a number of good points in the referenced article – and I will not repeat them here (hey, go read the original!). I agree whole-heartedly that the fact that those of us who support the Tablet PC have our work cut out for us if the momentum is to be maintained. I have been looking for projections about the size and growth of the Tablet PC market, but doing a Google search I do not see anything that is newer than about 2004. Are there any more current projections out there?

Another thought I had, beyond Loren’s observations, is around open source and the Tablet PC. The hardware specifications for the Tablet are fairly well defined. Unfortunately, the only software that supports it is Windows (not that I dislike Windows, but it means the entire Tablet PC industry is at the mercy of Microsoft’s decsions about continuing the platform). how about some of these really innovation open source types take the Tablet PC to new heights? Lets create a Linux-based (or not) OS, put a novel, Tablet-specific UI on it, and drive the Tablet market in that way? I know there are people out there who have put Linux on the Tablets, but I am talking more than just getting so it doesn’t crash, and works like a laptop with a funny shaped mouse. Something that really IS a Tablet computer. That would be a really innovative use of Open Source!

Thoughts?   

Vista Flops? I beg to differ….

I have been reading posts (blogs and in more traditional press) since Vista came out (well, since long before it came out, actually) about how bad it is, how unstable it is, about how nothing works, about how disappointing it is, and so on, blah blah blah….

Today, I came across this post Vista Flops, Users “Upgrading” to XP (there are number of similar posts in the same place, I will not link to them all).

I am rapidly coming ot the conclusion that people in the computer industry are the biggest whiners in existence – even worse then Canadians (just kidding – I AM CANADIAN). I have been using Vista as my primary OS since before the first release candidate. I use it on 5 computers (3 laptops, 1 desktop, and 1 Tablet). I have found it to be at least as stable as Windows XP (and more stable than many other versions of Windows in similar stages of their lifecycle). Performance is as good as I had under XP for most things. Overall, I have found it to be pretty good.

Are there things which I would like to have seen? Sure. Are there things that were in the original preview of Longhorn I saw at PDC 2003 that I wish were in the final version. Absolutely. I also recognize that features get cut and modified over the course of development, usually driven by the marketing department and feedback from those same whiny users.

The biggest complaint I have had about Vista is not against Microsoft so much as it is against the hardware and software community surrounding it. The availability and quality of updates to drivers and applications has been abysmal. A fair number of the devices I use (especially on my Tablet) were not supported when Vista was released, and some still are not and probably never will be. What happened – you guys get surprised by the release of Vista? Didn’t know it was coming. Come on – get with it. The same can be said for products from Apple (iTunes) and Adobe (Reader – the number one crashing product I have under Vista).

Get off it people – if you do not like Vista – do not use it. But please, stop whining about it!

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?

LE1700 – New Tablet from Motion Computing

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I see Motion computing has release a new Tablet PC – the LE1700. Looks pretty nice, though not too much different than the LE1600 on the outside. Then again, I love my LE1600, so I am not sure what I would change about it. Obviously, the new Core 2 Duo processor, and support for up to 4 gb of RAM are both nice enhancements.

I would still like to see some tablet vendor, somewhere, do something innovative witht he power connector. Just having it stick out the side does not seem to work. Anytime you are using the tablet in tablet mode, so much torque is put on the connector that in time, it cannot help but get loose. A solution to this cannot be that hard. I mean, how about simply recessing the socket, so that the plug does not stick out. Or, put a clip for the wire to shield the plug from some of the torque. This is still my one main reliability complaint about slate tablets.

Still looking forward to getting an LE1700 though J.

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.