[USA Today] Tablet PCs, by Kevin Maney
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
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
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
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.
Kevin Maney writes a weekly column about technology. Send e-mail to
Kevin at email@example.com.