[USA Today] Tablet PCs, by Kevin Maney

Rohit Khare Rohit@KnowNow.com
Sat, 5 Jan 2002 12:20:47 -0800


[For you folks on FoRK, no news here, but I'm always a fan of color 
commentary :-) --RK]

>  But the existence of such behavior drives technologists nuts. 
>"There's no room in the technologist's mind for information floating 
>in between the nooks and crannies of daily life," says Rohit Khare, 
>founder of networking company KnowNow. "We hate Post-it Notes, candy 
>wrappers and the backs of receipts."
>
>The defining feature of a tablet PC is that you can write on it like 
>paper. It has a touch-sensitive screen and a penlike stylus. What 
>you write can be saved, manipulated and sent around just like 
>something that was typed.

I also liked:
>...the typing pool. Remember that? People under age 20 think it's a 
>special area of a resort set aside for those who want to answer 
>e-mail.

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http://www.usatoday.com/life/cyber/ccarch/2001/11/21/maney.htm
11/21/2001 - Updated 10:00 AM ET

Tablet PCs: Something to write home about?

"Miss Galore, take a letter."

Who dictates letters anymore? Seventy-year-old executives in the 
vulcanized rubber industry? Does anybody take shorthand? Or type a 
letter onto paper, hand it to the boss so he can mark it up, then 
retype the whole thing?

Sometimes, an awkward stage of technology can make people act in 
inefficient, unnatural ways. The typewriter was one of those stages, 
caught between writing and word processing. It drove a series of odd 
behaviors and divisions of labor. It led, for instance, to the typing 
pool. Remember that? People under age 20 think it's a special area of 
a resort set aside for those who want to answer e-mail.

In a way, the laptop computer is an awkward technology stage. This 
helps explain why all sorts of companies over the past decade have 
tried - and failed - to make and market a tablet PC, a cross between 
a laptop and a piece of paper. Companies keep trying because they 
believe a tablet PC can fix the human behavior that the laptop has 
screwed up.

The latest to try is Microsoft and partners including Compaq 
Computer, Toshiba and Acer. They just unveiled a series of pen-based, 
fully functional tablet PCs, which will go on the market in 2002.

Laptops, you might think, are terrific. They solve problems, they 
don't create them.

But, let's say you've started a meeting, and a colleague sets his 
laptop on the table and pops it open. He then starts the 
tick-tick-tick of typing, looking at the screen as much as at anyone 
in the room.

Rude? Annoying? In most business settings, absolutely. Worse, I've 
heard that in some countries, the gesture is considered an insult to 
your family and must be avenged.

Yet, if someone in a meeting set a pad of paper on the table, started 
writing and looked at the paper as much as the people, no one would 
mind. He could be taking notes or drawing the boss naked. No one 
would know or care. The result is that people write on paper in 
meetings, then later type the same thing on their laptops.

On the flip side, if you decide to keep your notes only on paper, you 
can't search the past 5 years of notes for a keyword. You can't 
e-mail the notes to 30 colleagues. Digitally speaking, the notes are 
useless.

Another laptop problem: Say you write a long memo on your laptop and 
want to edit it while in the dentist's chair waiting for the nitrous 
oxide to take effect. You print out the document, make editing marks 
on it, realize you never knew supply chain management could be so 
hilarious, then type in the changes later.

Maybe you think that's fine. But the existence of such behavior 
drives technologists nuts. "There's no room in the technologist's 
mind for information floating in between the nooks and crannies of 
daily life," says Rohit Khare, founder of networking company KnowNow. 
"We hate Post-it Notes, candy wrappers and the backs of receipts."

The defining feature of a tablet PC is that you can write on it like 
paper. It has a touch-sensitive screen and a penlike stylus. What you 
write can be saved, manipulated and sent around just like something 
that was typed.

You could take a tablet PC to a meeting and write on it. You could 
pull it out at the dentist's office and edit a memo. "Someday, people 
will say, 'Of course, we do this. What did you do before? Print it 
out and scribble on it?' They'll think we were bizarre," Microsoft 
Chairman Bill Gates says.

That is, whenever someone can get the technology right.

To be clear, tablet PCs are not Palm handhelds or Pocket PC 
computers. As Marie Alexander, CEO of software company Quova, points 
out, those are too limited in size and capability. We're talking 
about a full-screen PC that has the speed and power of any laptop.

History hasn't been kind. Early on, there was the GridPad, with a 
flip-out keyboard designed by Jeff Hawkins, who later designed the 
Palm. Didn't get very far. Then, Go Computer fizzled in 1994 after 
AT&T bought it and tried to merge it with its own model, called EO. I 
remember testing an EO, which had a cell phone the size of an egg 
carton attached to the top. I also remember that I gave up on the 
computer part of EO and just used the cell phone.

Sony, Motorola, Matsushita, Philips, Fujitsu and venture firms 
including Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers have thrown tons of money 
and/or people at tablet PCs.

They've failed for a number of reasons. Too big; too heavy; couldn't 
do enough. A huge pitfall has been handwriting recognition, which is 
necessary to turn scribbles into useful digital information. "The 
technology is within reach," says Mike Homer, CEO of Internet company 
Kontiki and formerly with Go. "Sometimes it takes time to perfect it."

Microsoft's tablet PC software can do some new and interesting 
things. You can write notes on it, like on paper, and save the notes 
in your own handwriting. In the background, the computer will 
recognize the words and keep track of them in digital form. Later, if 
you want to search handwritten notes for a name or word, the computer 
can find it.

You can read a typed document and use a pen to edit it, turning your 
marks into typed text. The handwriting recognition is supposed to be 
the best yet. "Only this year have I been willing to take a tablet PC 
and use it myself on a daily basis," Gates says.

Gates predicts tablet PC sales will overtake laptops by 2005. If it 
does catch on, soon after we'll wonder how we ever worked the old 
way. Just like we wonder how some old guy could possibly stand to 
call a pretty young secretary into his office several times a day so 
she could write down everything he says. What torture.

Uh, but, if you know of any executive openings in the vulcanized 
rubber industry, let me know.
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Kevin Maney writes a weekly column about technology. Send e-mail to 
Kevin at kmaney@usatoday.com.