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Friday, September 03, 2004

A Simple Tablet PC 

Tablet PCs are so expensive, they aren't worth it. They seem clumsy, especially for anything that isn't note-taking related. Previously, I suggested that throwing Windows XP onto a tablet was the wrong idea, due to the bad match between interface and input device. I've come to think that the entire tablet is superfluous.

The tablet is useful because it can let you put what you write in electronic form and then search it, copy it, or move it around easily. Having to carry around a warm, battery-powered device with a screen that probably gets scratched up as you use it isn't convenient. There's a medium out there right now that is portable, durable, and has incredible display fidelity: paper. It's really hard for a tablet-like PC to get near paper in all those regards (Just look at how much praise is lavished on Windows for Tablets for the great lengths it goes through to make your writing look like actual penstrokes).

What really needs to happen is the pen-based PC. That is, the entire computer is in the pen. Siemens kind of got this one wrong for phones a while back, but I think that idea has promise for tablet-based computing. If you could cram a processor and memory into a comfortable, working pen, it could then simply record your pen strokes as you write on regular paper. Later on, you plug it into your computer and dump off what you wrote. Since it kept all the information on acceleration and stroke strength, the software on your computer can later display, analyze, search, and convert the text you wrote.

Of course, this does require some slight changes to the interface for pens. Instead of the usual "just write" interface, you would need a button to indicate that you are writing on a new page. While that might be strange, people seem to have gotten used to periodically clicking their mechanical pencils for more lead, so it strikes me as something that people could adapt to, given the potential benefits of a logging pen. The software that runs on the PC could let the user do a lot of the work to clean up any mistakes they might have made.

Microsoft will never do this, though. Obviously: they're only interested in devices that let them sell more copies of Windows (just look at their strategy, they're trying to get you to buy more copies of it: Windows for your computer! Windows for your servers! Windows for your game systems! Windows for your VCR! Windows for your portable music player! Windows for your cell phone! ...) However, the upside is that when you take the complexity of the tablet PC out of the equation, it becomes a much cheaper product to design and manufacture. Someone could actually give Microsoft's tablet PCs a run for their money on this (and I believe win, of course).

Too bad I'm not going into entrepreneurship. I'd buy that pen.

Comments:
Logitech io Personal Digital PenMy understanding is that it’s still a miserable first generation product, but they’re certainly working on this. The major conceit is that you have to use special pads of “digital paper”, which are just regular paper notebooks with special markings that the pen can identify for orientation. If they put a “New Page” button on the pen instead of requiring special paper with a new page symbol in the corner, the pen would be way more useful, but, of course, would obviate a paper licensing cartel.
 
Yeah, actually, Macneil pointed out to me by email that switching pages is a problem, if you want to go back. The bar-coded paper is actually a good solution to the problem, I think.

Interesting, I'm glad this has been made. Very interesting.
 
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