Many computer professionals have a long-standing practice of never buying the first version of anything from Microsoft (MSFT ). It's a good rule to keep in mind when considering the new Tablet PCs unveiled by Microsoft and an assortment of hardware and software partners on Nov. 7. The Tablet brings welcome innovation to an increasingly hidebound PC market, and it may end up being, as Microsoft claims, "the evolution of the notebook PC." But the initial hardware and software that I tested have an unfinished feel and look to be a year or two away from being ready for mainstream use.
The goal of the Tablet PC is to make it possible to control a computer with a pen. The pen can be used like a mouse for navigation and to enter text either to be stored as handwriting (or "digital ink") or to be converted into computer text. The shapes of the Tablets range from notebooks modified to allow the display to fold flat for writing to true tablets that have no real keyboard except when placed in a dock. I'll take a closer look at the hardware from Acer, Fujitsu (FJTSY ), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ), and Toshiba (TOSBF ) next week.
For now, though, I want to focus on the new capabilities delivered by the Tablets. I found it was neat for a while to watch a PC turn my handwriting into text--getting about 9 out of 10 words right. But actually, that gets old pretty fast. And while storing handwritten notes, drawings, and doodles in a computer has its uses, I don't think it's enough to make me run out and buy a $2,000 Tablet PC. Most applications still deal in text, and for most people, a keyboard remains the most efficient way to get words or numbers into a computer.
The real strength of the Tablet--and what will determine whether there is a substantial market in its future--lies in the third-party applications being developed to take advantage of its unique abilities, especially the direct manipulation of objects on the screen. These include drawing programs from Corel (CORL ) and Alias/Wavefront; Zinio, a service that turns a tablet into a magazine reader; and an application from Franklin Covey that lets you write appointments and notes on screens that resemble its planner pages, then merge the data into Microsoft Outlook.
The Tablet's usefulness, however, is hindered by some decisions Microsoft made, especially in the way it built pen entry on top of the existing Windows. When you are navigating around a Windows screen using a mouse or a mouse substitute like a laptop touchpad, you need a cursor on the screen so that you know what you are pointing at. In Windows, this is usually an arrow.
When using a Tablet with a pen, however, you simply touch the icon, text, or whatever object you want to select. And unlike the sort of touch screens used on handhelds, the radio frequency system used on Tablets will sense the pen location even if you are hovering a millimeter or two above the screen. In this setup, the cursor is not only superfluous, it gets in the way.
The situation is especially bad when using the on-screen virtual keyboard used by tapping keys with the pen. The keys helpfully change color when the pen hovers over them and change again when the key is actually tapped. Unfortunately, that distracting arrow follows you around like a Labrador puppy. There is also no way to use the pen without a keyboard to simulate the control-click and shift-click used to select multiple items in Windows. The tablet would be a wonderful way to use an image-editing program like Adobe Photoshop--if there were a way to emulate the shift, alt, and control keys the program uses extensively.
Using handwriting in place of the on-screen keyboard has its own problems. The software improves the accuracy of recognition by trying to interpret what you write in the context of the sentence. This works pretty well if you're dashing off an e-mail message. But it is disastrous for entering a user name, a password, or a Web address. (It had no trouble with "business week" written as two words, but consistently mangled businessweek.com.)
Little problems like this crop up throughout what is officially called Windows XP for Tablet PC. Cumulatively, they have a devastating impact on usability. For the time being, I think Tablet PCs will have limited appeal in specialized markets, such as insurance, where filling out on-screen forms is a major use. The rest of us can wait until Microsoft and its partners get it right.