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Another Tablet Computer? Bullwinkle, That Trick Never Works December 29, 2009

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Strategy.
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The computer industry seems to be gearing up for another round of tablet computing devices, which use a stylus or pen as input.  As someone who admits to being around for the first two or three rounds, I am dubious.  The first couple of rounds were led by proprietary systems such as the PenPoint OS, which was followed by Microsoft’s copycat technology, Windows for Pen Computing in the mid-1990s.

This doesn’t count the several different PDAs, such as the Apple Newton, that used pen input with a small form factor for activities like note-taking and recording appointments.

The tablet form factor today typically incorporates a standard laptop PC with a display that swivels down flat with the body of the laptop to creating a writing and drawing surface.  Such systems are used in niche markets, such as medicine and graphic design, for very specific purposes.

Yet general-purpose pen computing is a holy grail to which the industry has aspired for decades.  That aspiration has probably been driven by third factors.  First, a keyboard, even with a pointing device, is a highly limiting way of providing input to a computer.  While appropriate for text, it can’t easily handle the input of drawings, objects, or abstract concepts.  Second, a keyboard limits computer use to those who have learned to type.  If the computer is to be a universal device, it needs an input device that any person with a basic education can use.  Third, a keyboard is simply the largest part of a computer today, and one that the industry has been trying to downsize without success.

Part of the problem has been the technical issue of handwriting recognition.  Handwriting technology is reasonably good today, and systems have the computing power to resolve ambiguities through brute force, but people’s handwriting varies so greatly that there can still be a number of input errors.

But another part is that there is yet to be the proverbial killer application for the tablet.  There are certain activities that lend themselves to pen input, but for those who already know how to use a computer, the keyboard is at least adequate.

Perhaps it is different this time.  I can think of two reasons why that might be the case.  First, the Internet as a computing resource doesn’t require nearly as much text input as the standalone computer.  We can search, read, bookmark, and more with minimal use of a keyboard.

Second, the rumor mill surrounding Apple and an upcoming tablet computer launch indicates that the time may be right.  Apple has done a superior job over the last several years on hardware and systems design, and while it has had poor designs in the distant past, just about everything it’s done since the turn of the century has been right on.

But we still haven’t found a broad compelling application for pen computing on a tablet form factor.  I’m sure I can list off eight or ten applications that are invaluable in specific vertical markets, but nothing that’s going to cause millions of ordinary users to go out and buy a tablet computer.  Even if it is an Apple.  One or more of the underlying market or technical issues I’ve sketched above has to be successfully addressed before tablet computing can reach the mainstream.

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