Tablets: Waiting For More Smart Software

Microsoft is hobbling the tablet by aiming at the wrong crowd

By Microsoft's (MSFT ) standard, the Tablet PC is a flop, with sales of computers using the pen-ready version of Windows XP in the hundreds of thousands, not millions as forecast by Chairman William H. Gates III two years ago. Today, the Tablet is stuck mostly in such vertical markets as insurance and health care. Yet it remains one of Microsoft's most interesting experiments.

The Tablet, introduced in 2002, gives users the ability to write directly on the screen with an electronic stylus, so they can work without a keyboard or mouse. I have been trying out a new M1400 Tablet ($1,999) from Motion Computing and Microsoft's just-released Tablet PC 2005 software. The M1400 is a slate-type Tablet, meaning its normal use is tucked in the crook of your arm with no keyboard. (A variety of docking arrangements also make it usable on a desktop.)

In Microsoft Office, for example, you can scribble comments on a Word document or take longhand notes in a program called OneNote and use limited handwriting recognition to turn your scrawl into text. With the original Tablet software, you also had to spend a lot of time tapping out letters on an on-screen keyboard for such chores as entering an appointment in Outlook. That's now less necessary. A panel that converts handwriting to text pops up when needed. And a new option lets the Tablet recognize one character at a time so that you can enter information such as a Web address without having the recognition software mangle it by attempting to convert it to ordinary English words.

Still, I think Microsoft is hobbling the Tablet's future by marketing it primarily as a way to take notes on a screen. Paper and pen are perfectly good for that. And the convenience of storing notes as "digital ink" isn't worth having to carry a three-pound slate that gets toasty in your arm and depends on a battery that is good for no more than four hours.

THE TABLET'S GREATEST POTENTIAL lies in its ability to perform feats that cannot be done by typing on conventional laptops. For example, a major impediment to using computers for a lot of mathematical work has been the difficulty of entering math notation from a keyboard. MathJournal from xThink ($198, $98 for students) lets you write on the screen in conventional math notation. It parses the input and performs sophisticated calculations, including equation-solving, symbolic integration, and vector operations.

SketchBook Pro from Alias Systems ($179) lets you create complex freehand drawings directly on the screen. If you have ever tried to draw something with a mouse, you can guess how much simpler and more accurate it is to use a pen directly on the display. On the Tablets, the stylus becomes a vast array of virtual pens, pencils, and brushes. And, just like the real things, the electronic tools respond to how hard you press. Systems that allow pen-based drawing on external displays have been around for a while, but their complexity and expense limited their use to professional artists. Although not designed for the Tablet, AutoSketch ($129) from Autodesk (ADSK ), a technical drawing program, is easier to use with a pen than a mouse.

The bulk of Tablets sold have been "convertible" models that build Tablet functions into a clamshell laptop with a display that can rotate. I find the slate design more natural because it's lighter and easier to use on the go. The Motion M1400 is clever, featuring a fingerprint reader that can end the tedious chore of entering passwords with the stylus, and an optional combination keyboard and stand ($130) that doubles as a cover for the slate.

Now we need better software. Just about any program that allows for direct manipulation of objects on the screen, from entering notes in a musical score to creating relationships among items in a database, can profit from the Tablet's unique abilities. With more programs such as MathJournal and SketchBook, the Tablet could reach its potential.

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By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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