Friday, May 28, 2010

Oh, Microsoft...

I haven't written much over the past few years.

Part of it was just the busy-ness of life: finding a job, moving overseas, working in a foreign culture at a new school that was still establishing itself in every way.

But part of it also, was a general and ill-defined discouragement about the stagnant state of the Tablet PC ecosystem.

That discouragement still stands, but it is no longer so ill-defined. In fact, it clearly has a source now: Microsoft. And in addition to discouragement, it has become anger and frustration with Microsoft as the target.

Over the near decade of the existence of the Tablet PC, I have watched people come to see the power and potential that digital ink brings to the world of computers, especially in education. And then, I've watched many of these same people (and companies--remember Agilix's GoBinder?) quit the platform.

As has happened so often with new technologies, the first truly workable version is not easy to use. It happened with automobiles and planes. It happened with publishing tools. It happened generally with computers and operating systems. In each of these cases, the early days required special expertise to use the equipment. But over time in each of these cases, the technology improved to the point that almost anyone could use it.

Not so Tablet PCs. While earlier efforts clearly failed, Microsoft actually got it fairly right with Windows XP Tabled PC edition, at least by the standards of early days of technology. It worked. It brought something really new and powerful to the world.

And then they abandoned it.

Oh, not completely. They rolled it into Vista and made some minor improvements. Then they improved things slightly again with Windows 7. But these refinements were minor, half-hearted, and have not advanced the usability of the platform in any significant way.

Along the way, they simply dropped so many of those things that could have furthered the platform or would have fostered outside development that they effectively abandoned it.

They deny it, of course. In a future post I'll present a brief email exchange I had with Frank Shaw, a vice president of communications at Microsoft. He argues that the very act of rolling the Tablet PC version into the OS shows how committed they are to it. But I find that his reassurances belie the reality.

Today, if you say "tablet computer" everyone hears "iPad" and many seem to think Apple invented the form. Almost every time you read about Tablet PCs in the mainstream tech press, you'll find the word "failed" associated with it. Reading on a tablet device? Didn't Amazon invent that?

Microsoft was nearly a decade ahead of Apple in development of a tablet format computer. And as anything more than a media consumption device, they are still ahead of the iPad and the many soon-to-arrive Android devices. But what, really, have they done to make the platform more accessible to users AS TABLET DEVICES in that time? Nothing.

Microsoft Reader was an early entry in the e-reader space, and in many ways is still superior to the offerings of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and others. They had an excellent reading experience on tablet devices in 2003. They had a functional, albeit rudimentary, ink annotating capability back then. They even had a cursory distribution mechanism in place. But where is it today? It hasn't been updated since 2006. They dropped support for the Word add-in that let users create their own Reader files with Office XP, though it could be made to work in Word 2000.

Early on, they had games and power toys developed for the Tablet PC. Then they not only created nothing new for the Vista version, they stripped out some of the apps when they updated what they had. And since then? Nothing.

The last MSDN article on inking? 2007. The Tablet PC developer site? Gone. Well, they claim they've rolled it into their mobile development site, but I defy anyone to find anything new about digital ink or the use of the pen there. It's all about touch, phone and embedded now. Most of the articles that do touch on Tablet PCs deal with the XP edition, and none deal with Windows 7.

I still believe in the platform and the power that it brings. I can even demonstrate it to others such that they see it, too. One of my colleagues generally won't use her school provided Tablet PC, preferring her Mac for almost all of her work. Her (very valid) argument is that with her Mac she can just get her work done. She acknowledges that the Tablet PCs have more power, but they have less usability. Yet she has asked me to help her learn to use DyKnow on her Tablet PC in her classroom because of the tremendous power it brings there.

If a devoted Mac user sees this why can't Microsoft? And why don't they do anything about it?

3 Comments:

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