A Thousand Subtle Things, Part II
Even though it has been a while, I want to follow up with some more of the little, and maybe not so little, things that make the Tablet PC such a terrific computer.
Mice were a huge improvement in the computer interface. Those of us who remember the days of DOS and DOS programs remember what it was like trying to learn and recall keystroke combinations, selecting things with keyboard arrow keys, etc. Being able to use a pointer and select from menus was a wonderful thing. But there is a level of indirection still when using a mouse. Your eyes are focused one place and your hand is manipulating the controller elsewhere. One gets used to it after a while, but it is still somewhat artificial. With the pen, the manipulation is direct, just as it is in real life. You point at the menu choice you want to make. You write where you want the text to be. You circle the things you want to select. It is very natural.
This direct manipulation is particularly useful when annotating a document. In Word 2003, the pen works just as one would expect and can be used to annotate any Word document. PDF Annotator can be used to annotate PDF documents directly. Other documents can be printed to OneNote or GoBinder or Windows Journal and can be annotated there. Oh for the day when most text books are available in a usable format! Already, I use PDF versions of our standard forms. I can fill them out, print a copy for the other offices (since our system still depends on paper) and keep my electronic copy on my system. At least I don't have to keep track of so much paper.
Tablets also represent a return to a couple of paradigms that are quite ancient and familiar. The first, already addressed, is the paradigm of the book or paper. Holding and reading on a Tablet is essentially an ancient practice brought up-to-date. Likewise, the use of a pen or writing tool is as old as writing itself. All of us learned to write long before we learn to use a keyboard and this life-long skill is brought into play with Tablets. (Sadly, this skill seems to be getting lost these days as we push keyboarding earlier and earlier in schools.)
That said, there are times when the keyboard is the only way to go. For these times, I use a docking station with full-size keyboard, mouse, and second monitor. Make no mistake, even though it is not a speed demon, my Tablet is the BEST desktop system I've ever had because of this configuration. Sure, add a second video card and you can get the second screen going on a "real" desktop. But, can you then just grab the computer and go with it? With my Tablet I can. I don't have to close applications, log off, change any settings,… I don't have to do anything but pull it from the dock and go. Not all Tablets have such a great dock as the TC1100, but they should.
This next point is a bit more hearsay at this juncture, but I welcome comments, clarification, and references. Other Tablet users have told me of a body of work that talks of the benefits of hand-writing when note-taking over typing when note-taking. Apparently the muscle action involved in writing helps to more firmly set the material in one's memory. Anecdotally I would confirm part of this from my own experience. If I write something down, I usually remember it. If this is really so, getting students writing their notes on a Tablet should be pure gain for them. They get the same benefits they would by writing on paper plus all the benefits they gain by putting them on their computers. Email me or post a comment if you have more information on this.
For my last point in this post, I'll just leave you with a quote I heard from an attendee at the recent Workshop on the Impact of Pen Technology in Education (WIPTE, about which more later): "The Tablet PC finally marries the left brain with the right brain."