Monday, February 20, 2006

A Thousand Subtle Things, Part I

As often happens, I was recently asked what is the compelling argument for Tablet PCs over traditional notebook computers. That this came from a trustee at the quarterly meaning added a significant importance to the question and to getting the answer right.

The problem is, I'm not sure there is a right answer to that question for most of us. But the question is the problem, not the lack of an answer.

You see, I don’t think that there is a single big argument in favor of Tablets that makes them compelling. There are, however, many, many little ones and even these are variously compelling to different individuals. In an age where everyone thinks and talks about The Killer Application and The Next Big Thing, small subtle arguments can get lost. I think it's time to bring them front and center.

So, in no particular order, here is a list of some of the arguments that I think combine to make a compelling case for Tablet PCs:

First is that they are light enough and flexible enough to be a truly ubiquitous computer. While we have had portable computers for some time, many are still heavy enough that you don't want to carry them everywhere. My TC1100, sans keyboard, weighs in at a svelte 3 pounds. It is less than an inch thick and slightly smaller than a sheet of paper in its other two dimensions. I traded my 2+" thick Franklin Day Planner for it years ago and have never looked back. I always have it with me because it is so easy to do so.

Some would argue that ultra-portable notebooks offer this same weight and size advantage. Fair enough, but the form of the computers differ greatly. This is a second argument for the Tablet. Have you ever tried to work on a notebook while walking or standing? How about when curled up in an over-stuffed chair? What about lying against a tree? Open the keyboard and you can use the Tablet any way you can use the ultra-portable, but it doesn't work the other way.

Closely joined to this argument is the ease of reading on the Tablet. I have a good-size library of Reader and Acrobat books on my Tablet. I can read them comfortably in bed, in a car, with my feet up at my desk, or wherever I can read a book. (Actually, I can even read it in places I can't read a book, since I don't have to have a light source.) Emphasis, by the way, is on comfortably. I never could stand trying to read on a notebook computer screen. Unlike with a book, you have to adapt your position to the computer to be able to read. With the Tablet, I can hold it just as I always have with a book, regardless of my position. I often read while walking around campus. Can't do that easily with a notebook.

Let me jump back to my Day Planner for a second. With it (or with Outlook, with which it synchronizes) I have my contacts always with me, available in a matter of seconds. Again, I don't need to find a table or desk to look someone's number up or make a note of a commitment or jot down something. I can do it as easily as I could in my Franklin book. Easier, actually, since it was somewhat more awkward to hold the book in my hand while writing.

Not to mention that it is fully searchable, even when the notes and tasks are hand-written. Any day planner user who has ever had to find notesthat are a year or two old will understand this argument immediately. And, again, it is the ease of using it in any position that is a plus for a Tablet over a notebook.

Well, that and the fact that one can even write notes in the first place. Anywhere I can hold my Tablet, I can write notes—I've even jotted down a quote heard on the radio while driving. (Kids, don't try this at home.) I would have had to trust my too-frequently addled memory if I had only a keyboard to use. I can at least write one-handed without looking down.

While on the subject of note-taking, have you been in meetings or classes where people had notebooks open and were taking notes, at least ostensibly? Not only is it quite unclear what is really going on behind that screen, the very fact that you have to look at the back of it raises a social barrier that I, for one, find quite unpleasant. No one bats an eye when I have my Tablet down on the table or in my lap while taking notes. At church, I don't think most people even notice that I am using a computer (which has both my Bible and my notes on it). The social barrier is pretty much non-existent in this case.

I'll end this first bit on this topic here. There is a lot more and I will follow up on it as time allows. In the meantime, I would love to hear what other Tablet users find compelling. Let me know in a comment here or at markp(at)


Anonymous Darren said...

Excellent post, plus these are topics I can keep in mind for my Tablet Demo tomorrow.

5:35 PM  
Blogger Douglass said...

Yes to all, such as reading anywhere, including the ease of making notes the text. But key for me has been Onenote, which i increasinglyly use for about everything. that is saves on every keystroke, and that it creates lots of little files ratehr than one big one, makes it easy to synch with the desktop.

I've been using the NEC at 2 lbs, no longer in production. sad. i had the Acer 10 inch beofre at three lbs and it makes a difference. NEC never got the support (nor did the advertizing) it should have. I certainlly hope that Onenote in the 2007 longhorn version will have a calendar that synch's with Outlook, and is a good stand alone.

7:17 PM  
Blogger ScottyGu3 said...

One of the key "little things" for me is the fact that I don't have to remove my hand from my work to move an object on the screen -- the writing tool is also the pointing/manipulating tool.

When I'm typing on a desktop or laptop, I have to move off the keyboard when I need use a toolbar item that there isn't a shortcut or macro for or to draw or move an item on the screen. This interrupts the flow of my thoughts and I find it annoying. With my tablet, my workflow is much more natural since the pen is both the writing and "mouse" tool.

Standing up is even worse (with a laptop), as you point out! Oops, there's the bell...time to get back to work.

1:11 PM  
Blogger Mike Fried said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

3:27 AM  
Blogger Mike Fried said...

Another obvious small argument:

Your students get practice at handwriting and typing. There are good reasons to be proficient at both. Writing skills are important, and you don't have to kill trees to write on a tablet. Drawing skills are also important.

Another good argument is that Tablets aren't just another fad. They are the direction that technology is headed in. It's not significantly more expensive to add a digitizer to a laptop, and the slate form factor has all of the benefits you already stated.

I would turn the question around: Why not give our next generation of citizens and world leaders cutting edge tools and state-of-the-art interfaces? Why limit them to last-year's design clamshell laptop without the tablet features?

A few years ago, wireless was the "next big thing". If you wanted it in a laptop, you could go out and buy a WiFi card. It made a huge difference in our ability to communicate. Today, all laptops have wireless cards, and people can't remember what we would do without the feature.

Tablets are the next WiFi. They are the "next big thing". Ten years from now, we won't remember what it was like when we couldn't take out a pen and write on our screen or rotate the screen to make reading more natural - just like a book. You can't just add the feature onto a laptop, you have to buy a tablet.

Maybe you just need to lend this trustee a tablet for a period of time and see if he wants to give it back at the end. Getting a few trustees to understand the benefits of using the technology can't hurt your cause. Maybe if all of them got to use a tablet for the quarterly meetings, you could let the features sell themselves. :)

3:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great points for the tablet Mark, but everywhere we look we see the laptop. With extensive training of younger people on the advantages of the tablet maybe our society will move in that direction. Unfortunately educational facilities are slow in grasping the importance of tablets and stick with the laptop or desktop. We are in an excellent position to break the mold at VA but need the total commitment of the Trustees and administration. Good luck with the change...

10:59 AM  
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