Tablet makes its mark

Here's an irony for you. The open source world has its eye on Microsoft's tablet PC market, but it won't share the story with us.

Here’s an irony for you. The open source world has its eye on Microsoft’s tablet PC market, but it won’t share the story with us.

Auckland Linux system provider Asterisk told us a couple of months ago that it was developing a tablet PC application. With the launch a week or so ago of a range of tablets running Windows XP for Tablet PC Edition, we thought it timely to check on Asterisk’s progress. But we’re out of luck. Asterisk has promised to tell the story to another publication, presumably when the application is working, whenever that might be. Too bad; it’s missed an opportunity.

So we’ll have to confine ourselves to telling you about some applications we have seen -- and used on a prototype tablet from Fujitsu. First, what we saw.

Microsoft laid on a slick demonstration of near-perfect handwriting recognition and easy navigation by stylus at the tablet launch on November 8. The person doing the driving had the benefit of several months’ practice, and made the tablet look simple and powerful in its ability to handle handwritten jottings. Your scribbles can be saved as scribbles -- that is, as a .jnt file -- or converted to text. Cleverly, it’s not necessary to save as text to make your handwritten notes searchable. I’m not sure if that’s particularly useful, but it’s certainly smart.

The device looks tailormade for reporters. Not only can you scribble away during a press conference, but you can record the proceedings as well. Whether that would quickly exhaust the hard drive, I don’t know; Microsoft doesn’t pretend, however, that the voice recognition functionality is perfect, and didn’t show it in action. The application in which to make your jottings is Windows Journal. Say you’ve been busily noting down everything the product marketer’s been telling you, and she then adds more detail to a subject covered earlier. In my reporter’s notebook, this would cause a great confusion of lines and arrows linking the new with the already noted. In Windows Journal you merely insert space on the page and add the new notes.

I say "merely". In fact, in my clumsy hands nothing about using the stylus was that simple. For a start, I had to concentrate to make my writing readable. Then there’s a whole other art in mastering the stylus’ right mouse button functionality. Undoubtedly these things come with practice. Another deceptive feature of the launch demo was the apparent weightlessness of the device. The Fujitsu prototype I was using weighed 1.5kg, somewhat more than your typical pad of paper.

Another weighty feature is the price. The devices I saw at the launch -- from HP, Toshiba, Acer and Viewsonic -- start at around $5000. Hospital doctors have been talked about as a prime tablet (PC) market but I can’t see too many financially stretched health boards coughing up that sort of money. One of the vendors at the launch claimed to already have sold 40 to a government agency. Statistics New Zealand, we wondered, for its PC-based survey application? But apparently not.

Microsoft bravely trotted out John Ellenby, the man credited with making the first laptop computer, at the launch. Ellenby, the founder of GRiD Systems, also spent time at Xerox’s famous Palo Alto Research Centre, where he was a colleague of Alan Kay. In the 70s Kay sketched out a design for the Dynabook, a mobile computer with handwriting recognition and much else besides. Ellenby has been around too long to wholeheartedly endorse Microsoft’s second go at pen-based computing (the first, Windows for Pen Computing, flopped in the mid-90s). But the tablet might represent "a step along the way" toward the semi-mythical Dynabook, he says.

When its price and weight is half what it is today, I reckon he’ll be proved right.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Phone him with editorial suggestions on 09 302 8763. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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