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)