Microsoft has been hawking pen-based tablets since 1991, when it first launched Windows for Pen Computing, a version of Windows with a pen interface layer. In 2002, the company introduced Windows XP Tablet PC Edition.
Although the Tablet PC has won a few fans over the years, Microsoft’s whole pen initiative didn’t succeed like Bill Gates always wanted it to. In fact, Microsoft’s approach to pen tablets is very much a product of Gates’ personal vision for how mobile computers should work. He’s always envisioned tablets that use a combination of handwriting recognition and voice recognition to replace the functionality of the keyboard and mouse.
The strength of Microsoft’s belief in this vision is pretty astounding, enabling the company to continue to support and promote the idea for 20 years without ever having what you might call a runaway success.
Gates was right about one thing: The functionality of keyboard and mouse would be replaced on tablets in a big way. And that’s starting to happen, thanks mainly to the iPad.
He was also right about predicting the widespread use of pens or styli on tablets. No, really!
The idea of using a pen with a tablet is strongly associated with Microsoft and its unappealing Tablet PC platform.
Pen-based tablet computing will also become associated with Android, as new pen-aware Android tablets like the HTC Flyer come on the market, appearing to offer an alternative to the iPad’s supposed touch-only input.
Diehard fans of the Tablet PC platform find the popularity of the iPad confusing, and they don’t see the appeal. To them, an iPad is simply an underpowered tablet with clumsy finger input, rather than highly controlled stylus control. Plus, iPads run only what they see as dumbed down applications, and lack necessary features like USB ports.
Meanwhile, many iPad fans zero in on the use of a Pen as the main reason why Tablet PCs are flawed, saying that nobody wants to use a stylus and that touch input is the key to a successful tablet platform.
Both are wrong.
Why Tablet PC Fans Are Wrong About the iPad
An iPad is not an underpowered Tablet PC. Despite superficial similarity, they are totally different creatures with almost nothing in common.
I cringe whenever analysts lump Tablet PCs and iPads into the same product category. They are as different from each other as the Apple II is to the iMac.
Tablet PCs are second-generation interface Windows PCs, in the same general category as the Mac, Windows XP, the iMac and Windows 7 PCs. All these systems share the same basic approach to user interface, which is that they’re optimized for keyboard and external input devices, lean heavily on the files-and-folders metaphor, require extensive menus, utilities, maintenance and management.
If you read that last paragraph carefully, you can see the core of why Tablet PCs fail. The Tablet PC sports a user interface optimized for keyboards and external input devices, yet its use as a pen computer uses neither.
iPads, of course, are third-generation MPG (multi-touch, physics and gestures) devices, in the same category as Microsoft’s Surface tablet, Windows 8’s Metro UI (but not the OS or hardware that it will initially run on), the iPhone, Android devices and HP’s upcoming TouchPad tablet.
Unlike Tablet PCs, which are just PCs with a pen interface, iPads are appliances designed from the ground up for zero maintenance, file management and zero requirement for utilities.
So Tablet PC fans are wrong: The iPad isn’t an underpowered Tablet PC. It’s not a PC at all. In the appliance world, the iPad’s low-power processor and, say, lack of USB ports and file management are features, not flaws.
Why iPad Fans Are Wrong About Pen
And now we get to the whole point of this post. Legions of iPad fans wrongly associate the use of pen with Microsoft’s failed model for tablets.
There’s nothing wrong or bad or inherently flawed about using a stylus on a tablet. In fact, the ability to operate with a pen is the least problematic feature of the Tablet PC. That it required a pen to be used in tablet mode, that it was built on regular Windows, that it required battery-draining chips to just boot — these are major flaws. But not pen support.
If I had to choose between touch and pen, I would definitely choose touch. But I don’t have to choose. The iPad is an MPG appliance that also supports pens. And that’s a good thing.
To see how cool and useful it can be to use a stylus on an iPad, check out this “commercial” for a new iPad product called Scribbly.
The video shows a user circling paragraphs and annotating the margins, making a to-do list, using a virtual highlighter pen to select text — these are normal, everyday things people do with paper that are appealing and useful on a tablet and cannot be easily done with a finger.
Another stylus for the iPad, coming out later this month and aimed at the education market, is more of a pen and less of a “Magic Marker.” Called Doceri GoodPoint, the pen works with an app that rejects non-pen input when the pen is in use. That enables your hand to rest on the screen as you write, just as you would with paper. It even has an “eraser” on the top of the pen, just like a pencil does.
A product called the Nomad Brush is designed to simulate a paintbrush, and actually has a brush on the end.
Another project, still in the works, puts an iPad stylus on the end of a Sharpie pen, replacing the cap.
There is also a range of pens from Griffin, Ten One Design and a huge variety of cheap Chinese no-name styli.
I think pens like these will become much more popular. And they should. As new applications emerge that work better with pens, and as interesting new pen products hit the market, I think a lot of people will embrace them.
Meanwhile, Microsoft is pushing its Metro UI on phones, tablets and Windows 8.
As tablets running platforms from Microsoft, Google, HP, RIM and others emulate the iPad and ship real MPG interfaces optimized for touch, they’ll also support pens, just like the iPad will.
In a few years, everyone will forget about the Microsoft-is-for-pens, Apple-is-for-touch dichotomy that exists right now in the public perception of how their platforms differ, and as an erroneous explanation for why the one has failed and the other has succeeded.
So you might as well forget it now, rather than waiting for later. All next-generation tablets, including the iPad, will support both touch and pen (and voice recognition and more). On the iPad, pen use will begin on the periphery (students, doctors, lawyers, home cooks, artists) and gradually seep into the mainstream.
Yes: the Tablet PC sucks, and the iPad is great. But pen input has nothing to do with it.