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?

Saturday, March 01, 2008

A Bit Personal...

I lost my job recently and I can't find it anywhere. That's because it no longer exists. Vermont Academy, in response to the financial challenges that increasingly are facing most independent schools, eliminated several positions as a cost-cutting measure. Mine was one of them. Actually, two of them were in the IT department, which I believe bodes ill for the future of the Vermont Academy Tablet PC initiative, though I hope I am mistaken. But that is a posting for another day.

As I have begun exploring what the job market holds, one of the things I needed to do was to write a personal statement that expressed my philosophy of the relationship between technology and education. I am posting it here:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,…”

These lines from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities aptly describe the extreme perceptions of the role that technology plays in education. To some it is a silver bullet that will kill drudgery in the classroom, a panacea for lack of engagement that is able to reach even the most distracted and apathetic student! To others it is a scourge, bringing nothing of value and grossly adding to the swarm of distractions already buzzing around our students, keeping them from even pretending to do productive work! I doubt that there is an educator around who hasn’t toyed with one of these opinions, if not with both.

Certainly we’ve all heard them expressed in many different ways. Advocates of the latest techno-gimmick for education often spout what sounds like late-night infomercial shtick: “Just buy X and never worry about Y again! Act now and we’ll throw in the Ginzu knives for FREE!” “Virtual worlds, simulations (read: games), interactive educational software, online courses, Web 2.0, etc. will revolutionize education! This is the way this generation learns!”

Yet the media are full of stories of college professors who ban computers and cell phones from their classes because students are shopping, IMing, watching stock portfolios, and gaming rather than attending to the lesson at hand. Some colleges struggle with low attendance since many students would prefer to listen to the podcast of the lecture or discussion at a later point than engage in the classroom. Some high schools have dropped their one-to-one computer initiatives altogether because they saw no benefits, only costs.

So what is technology’s role in the classroom? Boon or bane? White knight or Mongol invader? Savior or demon?

The answer, I believe, is “none of the above.”

Education is not about technology. It never was and it certainly hasn’t become so since the advent of the personal computer. Education is about people in relationship. Teachers and students. Mentors and disciples. Co-explorers of new ideas. It is about people bridging gaps. Gaps in communication. Gaps in interest and involvement. Gaps in knowledge. Great teachers can teach well even without a whiteboard or a number two pencil or a computer or the Internet.

So why have technology in the classroom at all? Well, why do we have whiteboards? Why do we have videos? Why do we have libraries? We have them because, properly used, they are tools that can help any teacher teach better and any student learn better. But each of these things also can be used to other ends than education: entertainment, busy work, gossiping with friends. As with these other things, so with technology. The tool can be used for good or ill. The challenge is in defining and enacting “proper use.”

There is no one size fits all answer to this challenge. Just as every educator is different, and every student is different, the role of technology in helping them to build relationship and bridge gaps will be different. I believe that the role of the technologist is to help each educator and each school find the right roles for technology for them, for their styles of teaching, and for their particular school culture.

Good academic technologists must know the full breadth of possibilities that technology brings to the classroom. They must understand the educators with whom they are working and the culture of their school. Likewise, they must grasp the culture of the students who attend their school, and the needs of the parents of those students. They also must recognize the risks and shortcomings of technology, especially in the hands of students, and develop ways to deal well with these. And they themselves must be able to teach in a way that is encouraging and enlightening rather than demeaning or intimidating.

Only when he or she does these things can the academic technologist properly work with a teacher to find the appropriate roles (if any!) for technology in his or her classroom, and with all of the various other constituent groups to determine and implement the technologies that are appropriate for the entire school community.

My goal as a technologist in education is to implement this philosophy fully. While I am an enthusiastic proponent of advanced technology, especially Tablet PCs, I recognize that a particular type of technology is not always the one right or best solution—or even a proper solution at all. Both on the academic and administrative sides of education, I try to work with the team to examine each opportunity or need individually and explore the whole continuum of possible solutions so that the most appropriate decision regarding technology can be made by all those concerned.

Only when we are successful in this work together can we realize the true potential benefits of technology while keeping at bay the potential costs. This is how I try to make it “the best of times” when it comes to technology in education.

Friday, February 08, 2008

There are two upcoming Tablet PC-in-education workshops that I know have had significant impacts on educators who have attended in past years. I believe that both do good work furthering the reach of Tablet PCs in education with sensible realism, not with the breathless hyperbole (from both directions!) that so often accompanies discussions of technology in education.

The first is the third annual Workshop on the Impact of Pen-based Technology on Education (WIPTE), a two day conference held at Purdue University. The conference brings together in one place research papers, posters and, new this year, video presentations of real-world examples of Tablet PCs and other pen-based technology tools in use in the classroom. Study environments cover the gamut from Pre-K, through K-12 and higher education. The conference dates this year are October 15 and 16. Schools or individuals that might be interested in submitting a paper, poster or video are encouraged to get the appropriate calls now, as the submission process will open shortly and must be completed by June 16. More details, including the calls for papers, posters and videos, can be obtained at

The second event is Hunterdon Central's Tablet PC Academy, hosted by the Hunterdon Central School District in New Jersey. Hunterdon has 250 teachers using Tablet PCs and the supporting technology on a daily basis and has seen significant results from their program. To quote Rob Mancabelli, Director of IS for the disctrict, "The academy tries to capture best practices for teachers who want to use tablets in instruction or technology personnel/administrators who want to know how to build and support a program." The Academy will be held twice, on July 15-17 and again on July 22-24. More details are available at

By means of full disclosure, I am a member of the organizing committee for WIPTE. I have no relationship with Hunterdon's Tablet PC Academy other than being a long time admirer of the work that Rob and his folks have done. Please feel free to contact me if I can provide you with any further information. You can post a comment here or send to my email address, which can be found on the WIPTE web site.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Whither print?

I just reread a not-so-recent posting on about the demise of the print edition of that venerable tech magazine. It is a short article, worth the read even for those not into tech specifically. Ed Foster writes about his mixed feelings regarding the cessation of a hard copy edition of the magazine as it moved to a web-only existence.

I have to confess that I share his ambivalence about the future of "dead tree" editions of things. I love curling up with a good book. I adore the smell of a used book store and the feel of a quality edition of old favorites. You can take a paperback book camping and not worry about battery life. Or weight. A room lined with full bookshelves is a beautiful thing. There are many things I also like about print magazines, not the least of which is their linearity or at least their limited options for jumping around.

Sometimes clicking around links on web pages makes me wonder if I'll ever find my way back to something I wanted to read but saw in passing on the way somewhere else. My desktop regularly gets overwhelmed with links to these pages that I drop there "temporarily" so i can get back to them. At one point, I had created a half dozen desktop folders at different times to hold these "must read" links that I never seemed to find the time to get back to but had to get off my desktop.

It appears that many, many people agree with me that print is a terrific medium. I've heard the comment "I don't like reading on a computer screen" so many times I've lost count. Not just from adults, either, but even from a surprising number of students.

But if this sentiment is really so ubiquitous, why are print magazines getting smaller and smaller? Or moving strictly to the web like Infoworld? Why are newspapers losing readership and advertising dollars--the only two sources of revenue they have to keep going?

Is this a trend merely of the news sites, whose content must be fresh and constantly changing? Their need for quick presentation of the "new" would definitely make electronic access more desirable for both producer and reader. Or is it bigger trend that is starting there but with time will move on to literature? Already electronic publishing of research papers, which do not normally change after publishing, is happening electroinically. Is it only a matter of time before everyone is so accustomed to reading on screen that they will naturally gravitate to that medium for books' content as well?

Previous transitions in this transmission of information (verbal to written, scrolls to books, manual copies to printing press) each produced such a noticeable improvement without obvious down side that the transition was probably quickly and widely accepted. (At least it appears so in retrospect. One imagines that folks at the time may not have thought so.) Does the transition from paper to pixels have this same upside-only character? It looks that way for at least some content.

As Tablet PCs become more widely accepted and deployed (which, in spite of the naysaying of those who still don't get it, they are and will) some of the other objections will be eliminated from the equation. While not the same experience as reading a book, neither is reading on a Tablet like reading on a strictly vertical screen on a desk, or even on a notebook on your lap. Several good reader formats already exist and more are being explored and developed. More and better ways of allowing annotation are being created. Tablet models are, for the most part, comfortable to carry and hold and will continue to improve over time (although right now we are seeing one step backward for each step forward with many vendors. HP, are listening? Give us back a detachable keyboard, screen and bezel buttons, and the scroller!)

I don't claim to know what the future holds, but I'll be very surprised if most of us aren't doing most of our reading on Tablets or Tablet-like devices down the road. What about you?


So much has been happening over the last year (or two!) that postings here have languished. Certainly not for lack of topic material!

We are now officially a one-to-one Tablet PC school. After a major vendor snafu, we are now mostly running on HP 2710p Tablet PCs, which I generally like well. (More on this later.) We are a significantly smaller school than we have been in the past, a somewhat intentional short-term situation with a large impact on our program. We had a great orientation week planned with lots of Tablet PC based training--which was completely derailed by the aforementioned vendor snafu. We recovered and did an abbreviated version of it that was quite successful in my opinion. (Gotta roll with those punches.) Preparations are ongoing for the 2008 WIPTE conference, with a new video presentation option this year geared primarily toward pre-K-12. More on this on the WIPTE site shortly. We've begun the implementation of a work request tracking system that I have very mixed feelings about, but which is an essential part of supporting such a one-to-one program. We've made a commitment to a 10 minute max response time for any classroom technology issue that arises during a class.

And I could go on and on...

But for now I'll put up a quick post to follow this one that is mostly just a bit of pondering about the state of the world.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Always connected, part II

Just a quick note as a follow-up to the last (now ancient) post.

InfoWorld has posted an article on the state of online applications as replacements for desktop applications. Can Web-based applications outwit, outplay, outlast the desktop? It is an interesting read and approaches this topic pretty much strictly from the angle of how well the various web-based offerings compare with MS Office in allowing the writer to get his work done. Overall? After a week of web-only applications, his conclusion is not particularly well. The author indicates right up front, however, that your mileage may vary. It all depends on what you need.

While the capabilities of these applications is, almost by definition, in a constant state of flux and, one hopes, of improvement, they are constrained in ways other than just the unreliable state of Internet connectivity. Case in point on that, by the way: our ISP had problems yesterday that left a number of sites completely unreachable while others were agonizingly slow to load. This lasted pretty much all day. If we depended on a web based application for our work and it was at one of those sites we could have chalked the entire day up as a productivity loss.

His final lines supports my opinion about web-based applications in general.

Anyway, a quote from the end of the article:

Was the experience worth it? Definitely. Are the applications worth the trouble? Mostly not. Zoho is definitely the standout in the group. It’s the only one that not only offers most of the apps I need but also seems to have a clear vision of where it’s going. And it’s free. ThinkFree and gOffice are similar, but neither has the breadth of apps, features, or collaboration that Zoho does.

The rest seem to be offering these apps simply because they can. Google’s Writely and Spreadsheets are impressive examples of Web 2.0 technology, but neither can compete with a desktop app on its own. And neither takes enough advantage of the Web’s particular technologies as yet.

Plus, all these applications are hampered by their very foundations: the Web. Without a Web connection, you can’t use these applications. With a spotty Web connection (such as the one at Bryant Park), you’re dead. Locally installed applications are simply more reliable and feature-rich. No big surprise there.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Always connected or always available?

Maybe I'm just getting old… There was a time when I would jump all over any new technology with the starry-eyed optimism of any youth, or at least any young geek, thinking that this technology was the wave of the future and anyone who couldn't see that was just ignorant. (Oh wait, that attitude is what gave us the Dot-Com bubble, wasn't it? And the subsequent Dot-Com bust…)

But these days, more and more, I get the feeling that the world is full of starry-eyed youths who can't really see the future to save their lives, just the latest buzz-words and hype. I, however, in my maturity and wisdom see things as they really are…

Same hubris, opposite perspective I suppose.

Anyway, my cantankerous musings today stem from thinking about the issues of thin-client computer, desktop virtualization, software as a service, the "death of the desktop" and a number of other buzzwords that are zipping around the tech media today like flies on road kill in mid-July.

In their proper place, most of these technologies have huge benefits in terms of cutting costs (especially support costs), providing quality service, improving reliability, etc. But to hear the pundits pontificating, that proper place sounds like it is everywhere and for everyone and the whole world is going to come around soon.

I think the main thing that bothers me about these technologies, what makes me leery of them even when I can see real benefits to them, is that they all presume a constantly connected system. Even in this day of hotspots at every coffee shop, this is simply not the reality for most of us. Or at least not for those of us who really can and do use our computers anywhere. Sure, if I have to open up my computer and set it on a table before I can use it chances are I will be doing that in some place that will have a wired or wireless connection. But with a Tablet that isn't the reality any more. I use mine in the grocery store for shopping lists. I use it in the car (usually only when I'm not driving but I do keep directions on it), I use it for meetings at other people's houses, I use it in church. In short, I really do use it everywhere, and many of those places have no connectivity. And no connectivity means no data when that data is anywhere but on your computer. It will also mean no applications when those are provided by Google and hosted on Google's servers.

Now maybe that is just because I live and work in the rural northeast, but I doubt it. I think the reality even in major cities is that connectivity really isn't ubiquitous, it is just ubiquitous in most of the places where people actually sit down to compute. And I don't think that (always sitting down to compute) is the future. The future rightly belongs to those who will compute wherever and in whatever position they want.

Then you have airplanes, boats, cars, locations with secured wireless and all sorts of other places where a connection can't or won't happen. And laws that make it illegal to sponge off an open wireless connection. (There goes my ability to keep in touch with family while on the road!)

And don't even get me started on the reliability of Internet connectivity. We just went through four days of no connection at home owing in part to a leaky circuit box and wet weather and in part to a Comcast support screw up. Four days of no access to my data and apps? No way!

And especially don't get me started on the whole security angle of all my data stored on someone else's server with the data of 1,000,000 other people making one very fat, juicy target for someone hell-bent on identity theft or corporate espionage or just plain mischief. Think that is far-fetched? Then you're not reading the papers. They regularly tell us about the very large number of big data bases that are attacked and cracked just to get the personal information of a significant number of people. And those are just the ones that are acknowledged.

OK, I feel somewhat better getting that off my chest. Maybe I'll head on out to the field by the stream out on the back part of campus, relax, and read some of the books I've got on my Tablet. And because they are there and not somewhere else, … I can.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


As a starter to what I hope is a renewed period of activity on this blog, I wanted to share my thoughts on the "perfect" Tablet PC. Perfect, at least, within the current bounds of the technology.

First a quick update on what we are using at Vermont Academy. (We are just now beginning to look at options for next year, though we won't be making a final decision until March or April.)

Our standard model Tablet PC this year was the HP TC4400. We opted for the high-end model with all the bells and whistles, most importantly an indoor/outdoor screen. It is a pretty sweet computer and I am pleased to be using one as a secondary Tablet PC and development computer. It is running Vista Ultimate (from MSDN) quite happily and I am VERY pleased with Vista. Now if I could just get the HP drivers to enable the buttons and a few other odds and ends like the microphone… Maybe after the consumer release of Vista…

But my primary Tablet is still my trusty and aging TC1100. Much as I like the horsepower, bigger screen, outdoor viewable screen, etc., of the TC4400, the form factor of the TC1100 is still closer to "right" in my opinion.

So, without further ado, my specs for the perfect Tablet PC. HP (or anyone else), feel free to claim these for your own. Just let me be a tester for you.

Size and weight: The external dimensions should be barely larger than the screen. The weight of the keyboard-less Tablet should be under 3 pounds, preferably around 2 pounds. NEC had a 2.2 pound Tablet years ago. One half, perhaps three quarters of an inch thick, but no thicker. The keyboard weight is discussed below.

Screen: 12.1" is the sweet spot here. Large enough to be useful, small enough to carry around conveniently. Indoor/outdoor viewable. Wide, wide viewing angle. No extra bezel around the keyboard beyond what is necessary. TabletKiosk seems to have this down well.

Memory: 2 Gig standard, max of at least 4 Gig. USER ACCESSIBLE! All the Tablets I've seen hide one of the chips, so an upgrade that requires the replacement of the internal chip is not possible by the end user.

Keyboard (and ports): It must be both detachable and secure when connected. The Tablet should be able to fold over the keyboard face up or face down. The small clips on the TC1100 are a weak point and we have seen many a keyboard bite the dust when the hinge broke when dropped. Why do we have to have inserts into the Tablet from the keyboard? How about a connection that actually grasps the outside of the Tablet itself enough to hold it securely? If the electrical connector is designed right, the Tablet could go in either way and there wouldn't even need to be a pivoting hinge. (I'm not 100% sure of this, so make sure I get to see those early prototypes, OK?) Weight of the keyboard is not a key factor! In fact, I would prefer a keyboard that actually weighs as much or more than the Tablet itself. Put a second battery in the keyboard. Heck, put a huge battery in it. My TC4400 has a couple pound battery attached that gives me many hours of usable time. Stick that inside the keyboard. Put an (optional) optical drive in the keyboard itself. Put most of the connectors (several USB, modem, etc., maybe even the Ethernet connector) into the keyboard. The only regular ports I really need on the Tablet itself are a couple of USB ports, audio and microphone, SD card slot and (probably) a PC-Card slot. Maybe the Ethernet, though I find that when I use that I am generally on the keyboard anyway. The advantage of a heavy keyboard is that you won't carry it when you don't need it (and generally this is also when I don't need most of the connectors). You can offload some weight from the Tablet itself this way. When you do need the keyboard, it is heavy enough to make the system stable, not top-heavy like the TC1100. Oh, and make it a decent keyboard to use. While I love using a Tablet in slate mode, I am a touch typist and I want a real keyboard… Last thing on this point: make sure that the keyboard latches securely when closed. I find it very unpleasant to hold a tablet with the keyboard attached (convertible or hybrid) and feel that movement between the two pieces. It's a common complaint.

Battery: Until I had the external on the TC4400, I thought carrying a second battery and hot-swapping was just fine. I was wrong. It is good, and definitely the internal battery should be hot-swappable, but having that external battery is great! It needs to go on the back of the system and attach in such a way that the unit doesn't sit at a funny angle when on the desk. It should also not negatively affect the carrying of the unit like some do. They change the balance point or extend to one side or another and, for many users at least, make carrying the system more awkward. (To be fair, with both the TC4400 and the Lenovo systems, some users actually like the extra ledge the battery creates and find it an aid to comfortable carrying.) Eight cells is good, twelve cells is marvelous! A really nice feature of the HP 12 cell is that it can be independently charged and comes with its own power block.

External buttons and indicator lights: Besides the standards in the Tablet PC spec, several programmable buttons should be on the system (and make sure you include something akin to HP's excellent Q menu). These should all be located on the side (when held in portrait mode) and positioned centrally on the side. In this way, both left- and right-handed users will find them convenient. I'm right-handed, so I am just speculating here (left handed users should chime in on this), but I imagine that a left-handed user would want to set the standard portrait mode into the secondary portrait position so that the buttons are accessibly more easily with either the hand holding the Tablet or the writing hand. Rotating my TC1100 this way puts those buttons down in the lower part of the screen where they are awkward to reach. Additionally, wireless on/off, mute, and maybe volume (perhaps by using the jog dial cleverly). Power, wireless, charging, hard disk activity lights at a minimum. Small and discreet, please, but easily visible.

Docking station: There is plenty of room for improvement in almost all docking stations I've seen. The TC1100 dock is good. It allows the tablet to rotate and to be positioned at angles between nearly vertical and nearly flat on the desk in either orientation. This is critical. The TC4400 "dock" is really little more than a port replicator. Useful as such, but I do most of my work in portrait which means I only get to see part of anything I've worked on when docked. I've thought for a long while that a wireless dock would be a great option and it looks like that is becoming a reality now with Toshiba's new R400. (More on this unit in a bit.) That is brilliant! I have so often wanted to hold my Tablet and write on it while looking at something on the external monitor. The TC1100 dock sort of allows this since I can lay the Tablet down, but wireless would be the perfect solution.

I could go on and on (in case you couldn't tell…), but these are some of the key features I would look for.

All that said, the new Toshiba R400 could up the ante for convertible Tablets. It is a svelte, attractive unit. It has the wireless docking station. It has a great looking display and seems to have a reasonably well attached screen. Still about 4 pounds, though. I hope to see one when we evaluate computers for next year. For now, it's worth looking at the video of it from CES that the GottaBeMobile guys have posted on their web site. It doesn't answer every concern but it looks to be a definite step in the right direction in a convertible world.

Back in the saddle again...

(Does anyone remember the old Firesign Theatre sketch with that song in it?)

After a lengthy hiatus, I am hopeful that I can get back to a more regular schedule posting here. It is certainly not a lack of activity that has kept things so quiet. Quite the contrary.

That said, I'll start with a post I've been mulling over for a long time...

Monday, October 02, 2006

Just Moodling around...

As anyone who works at a boarding school knows, the time around the start of school is always hectic and tiring. Make that exhausting. Then we add Trustees/Alumni Weekend less than a month into school, and Parents' Weekend three weeks later and it is a wonder we make it to Thanksgiving in one piece. This year was especially rough, but I'll save the whine about that for another time.

I do want to grab a few minutes to briefly mention a piece of software we have implemented at Vermont Academy. It is worthwhile in itself, but it bears special mention now because of my previous post.

A year ago we switched from a commercial, and very expensive, course management system to Moodle, an open-source system that is coming on very strong in this arena. Why does Moodle bear mention now? Because it beautifully handles the switching between portrait mode and landscape mode! You can see our site for yourself at It is a very young work in progress, but it is getting fleshed out over the course of this semester. Play with the width of the window or switch between portrait and landscape and see what I mean. Other varied and more complete sites can be seen at

I would encourage any school looking for course content management software to consider Moodle, but especially those schools that are using or looking at Tablet PCs. The price can't be beat. The feature set is solid. Development is active and well-managed. There is good support from the community. You get the source code so you can tweak it. The folks at Agilix (makers of GoBinder) are working on an interface between Moodle and GoBinder, so there are even better things coming.

Like all the other course content management systems, it is a web application, which automatically means that pen support is poor to non-existent. (Anyone know PHP and want to tackle better pen interface issues?) Nevertheless, these apps fill an important place in a school's academic support arena and I am able do most of my work with Moodle with the pen. Moodle is a good system; it looks great on the Tablet; and the future is bright for it.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

A Narrow View

It has long been a pet peeve of mine that very few web sites look good on a Tablet when it is in portrait mode. Not even the major Tablet PC sites seem to take this into consideration. To me, portrait is the natural orientation on a Tablet PC and web sites dedicated to Tablets ought to at least accomodate this, if not be designed specifically for it. But most aren't. Why is this the case?

Here is a site that I think shows some real intelligence. (In the formatting, not necessarily in the content!) I offer it to the Tablet community as an example to learn from. When you've got it open, maximize the window then switch between Portrait and Landscape and watch what happens.

8/30 update: As so often happens to me,* the day after I posted this I found one site that does seem to make a serious, and mostly successful, effort to address this. The Student Tablet PC web site does indeed shift into narrower and wider display versions based on screen orientation. Kudos to Tracy, Trevor and Andrew. I say only mostly successful because wide links in the page can't break and still force horizontal scrolling, but it isn't required to read the text of the page itself. That and the artifacts on the left and right all fit within the display area of the page. Very nice!

*The surest way for me to find something I've been looking for or to remember something I've been trying to recall is to ask my wife. As soon as the words are out of my mouth, I find the thing.

Friday, June 30, 2006

The Vermont Slate - Act II

Well, as I've said before, the slate is dead. I'd like to follow that by saying, "Long live the Slate," but unfortunately I can't.

Since the TC1100 is no longer in production, we have had to select a new model Tablet PC for use at Vermont Academy. This was far from an easy task. We have finally made our decision, but before I reveal our choice, I would like to do a nickel review of the various models we tried out, and what we saw as some of the plusses and minuses of each.

Our selection pool consisted of two slate models, the Motion LE1600 and the Sahara i213, and three convertible models, the Lenovo X41, the Toshiba M400, and the HP TC4400. (Our demo model was actually a TC4200, but the TC4400 is on essentially the same chassis but with updated insides.)

Students and faculty had a chance to spend time with each machine and try it out, giving us feedback on their likes and dislikes for each one. We had some pretty interesting results, but in the end each machine had its proponents and its detractors. The basic minimum specs of each machine were very similar for our evaluation: 512 meg of RAM, wireless b/g networking, 12.1 inch screen, multiple USB 2.0 ports, etc. Pretty standard stuff for Tablets. We also were interest in models that offered an outdoor viewable screen, integrated fingerprint reader, wireless a/b/g, Bluetooth, docking stations, 3 year warranty, and an accidental damage insurance policy. Not all models offered all of these options.

The Motion LE1600 is a pure slate, but it does come with an optional "convertible keyboard" which we also evaluated. It is quite light weight (3.13 lbs) since there is no keyboard in its normal configuration. It uses a Pentium M processor running a 1.5 GHz (a Celeron model is available) and an Intel 915GMS chipset. The default 30 gigabyte drive is small, but a 60 gigabyte drive is available. Maximum memory is 1.5 megabytes. It claims 3+ hours of battery life, but offers an extended battery for longer battery life. Motions have a terrific docking system, letting the LE1600 dock in portrait or landscape, and an excellent internal microphone setup. The case is very attractive and rugged, being made of carbon fiber and magnesium alloy, and feels good in the hand. There is an option for an outdoor viewable screen. I will confess to being a long-time fan of Motion Tablets, and this model is a very nice addition to their line. The keyboard is another story. During our evaluations, this model got good reviews as long as we didn't include the keyboard. It was universally panned by our students who tried it out when the keyboard was attached.

The Sahara i213 is a little-known sleeper in the Tablet arena. It is a beautiful Tablet and looks like what I would picture an Apple-made Tablet PC looking like. Nice lines, a screen that goes almost edge to edge, keeping the external dimensions as small as the TC1100, but giving the larger workspace of a 12.1 inch screen. It uses a Pentium M processor running at 1.3 GHz, the slowest in the group by spec, but not really noticeable in use. Base hard disk size is 40 megabytes, with larger units available. Maximum memory is a rather paltry 1 megabyte. It comes with 802.11b/g and no Bluetooth. It, too is quite light (3.1 lbs), the lightest model we examined. While we didn't receive an evaluation unit, the docking station looks great and allows the i213 to dock in either portrait or landscape mode. It's a bit pricey, though. Sahara does not offer any kind of attachable keyboard, nor does it support Bluetooth, so an RF or tethered keyboard is the only option, the former through use of an adapter. There is no outdoor viewable screen option. The plastic case is an off-white color, though our evaluation unit was actually a special run pink color. This was a huge hit with our females (both students and faculty), but unfortunately, the color was not available to us for purchase. For myself, I liked the style of this unit enough that I would consider it as a likely replacement for my TC1100 if it were based on the newer Centrino Duo chip and had an outdoor viewable screen.

The Lenovo X41 shows all the hallmarks of its ThinkPad heritage: a slim, sleek black case with a terrific keyboard and integrated TrackPoint pointing stick in the keyboard. The model we tested had the 8 cell battery, claiming 5+ hours of battery life, and bringing the unit's weight to about 4 pounds--still quite light for a convertible. Some users liked the small ledge created by the extended battery as a hand-hold, others did not. (The optional 4 cell battery is about an inch shorter than the 8 cell and does not stick out beyond the back of the unit.) This model is powered by a Pentium M running at 1.6 GHz. It had 512 meg of RAM with 1.5 meg max, a 60 gigabyte disk, wireless a/b/g networking, Bluetooth, and integrated fingerprint reader. There are several docking station options, but none of them allow for rotation of the screen to portrait mode. There is not an option for an outdoor viewable screen.

The Toshiba M400 has the Intel Centrino Duo processor running at 1.6 GHz, an 80 gigabyte disk, 512 meg of RAM (2 gig max), 802.11a/b/g wireless, Bluetooth, a 6 cell battery (claiming over 5 hours of battery life), an integrated fingerprint reader, and an internal DVD/CDRW drive--the only model tested that contained an internal optical drive. It weighed in a a solid 4.5 lbs. Toshiba offers several port replicator options, none of which allow for rotation of the display to portrait mode while docked. The case is rugged and there is built-in protection for the hard disk in case of a sudden drop of the unit. The unit includes a touch pad pointing device. Toshiba also has some very nice custom software on the unit, particularly the wireless management tools. Unlike the rest of the models considered, the screen on the M400 was a softer plastic that showed tracking on the surface for pen users with heavy hands. There is no outdoor viewable screen option.

The HP TC4400 was not physically evaluated, as it had not yet been released by Hewlett-Packard. However, the release date was scheduled early enough that we wanted to consider this unit since it was the only model other than the M400 that ran on Intel's newest chip. Because it is externally the same as the TC4200, we evaluated that unit for look and feel, recognizing that performance would be slower than the TC4400. The TC4400 we considered has the Intel Centrino Duo processor running at 2 GHz, 1 gigabyte of RAM, an 80 gigabyte hard disk, 802.11a/b/g wireless, Bluetooth, a 6 cell battery, and an integrated fingerprint reader. The keyboard includes both a touch pad and a TrackPoint pointer, either of which can be disabled if desired. Several users commented on the perceived ruggedness of the unit. An outdoor viewable screen is an option. It weighs in at 4.6 pounds as configured. The docking station, just as with the other convertibles, does not permit rotating the screen to portrait mode.

It was a tough decision, with a lot of good comments both pro and con on most of the units. In the end, there were a couple of factors that drove us in the direction of our final choice, the TC4400. First, we couldn't see standardizing on (and asking families to pay a comparable price for) Pentium M based systems when the Centrino Duo was already out. This left only two units to be considered. (Lenovo has the X61 scheduled for shipping in November of this year, too late to be considered, and neither Motion nor Sahara would state whether or when they were releasing updates incorporating the new chips.) Second, price was a major factor. We requested quotes from all of the vendors on the configurations we evaluated. Surprisingly, the two slate models came with the highest price tags and the vendors moved the least from their list price. The HP handily won on price alone, even though it was the most powerful model examined and even when we added the outdoor viewable screen option. Plus, we already have a good, established relationship with a warranty center, so sticking with the same manufacturer minimized problems in that regard.

Finally, we actually did consider many other matters as well, a few of which I want to mention.

Being able to rotate the docked Tablet to portrait mode should be standard practice with docking stations. That no convertible manufacturer's docks allow this shows a significant lack of understanding of Tablets on the part of convertible makers. This was a big strike against the convertibles.

The keyboard is a crucial tool for students, even those that do use the Tablet function extremely well. Neither slate model had a particularly good keyboard option, though both had excellent docking stations. All of the convertible models had very good keyboards. It is unfortunate that they are just dead weight when in Tablet mode, though. This was a critical point--students need good keyboards and they need them to be convenient even when away from their desk.

Nevertheless, given the interest that the pink case had for the girls at Vermont Academy, we might well have supported the Sahara i213 as an optional choice if we could have gotten it in that color. This evaluation was the first time that I have seen many girls actually excited about a computer. (Manufacturers, are you listening?)

Thursday, May 04, 2006

A Thousand Subtle Things, Part II

I'm always surprised by how much time goes by without my realizing it. When I wrote my last posting, our quarterly trustees meeting had just occurred. This weekend is the next one, which means (obviously) that almost full quarter has passed. Sheesh! Where does the time go?

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."

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)

Friday, January 06, 2006

Spaces - The Final Frontier...

One of the faculty members on our Tablet program advisory group has a real thing about power. The kind that computers require to operate, that is. He is (rightly) very concerned that we make sure that there are adequate sources of power available in classrooms so that students don't run out of juice in the middle of class. (Our suspicion is that this will be the new "my dog ate my homework" excuse.)

His comments got me to thinking about the impact that Tablets will have on the environment around us, and especially on the kinds and style of spaces that we have and the furnishings in them. Mostly I just have musings about this, not answers of any kind, but then I have to start somewhere so please bear with me. My hope is that a discussion on this will ensue to everybody's benefit. If nothing else, at least writing it forces me to organize my thoughts somewhat.

Some of these issues, such as the need for power, wide provision of wireless networking, or secure places to stow the computer when at lunch or whatever are common to any kind of portable computers in schools, but others I think are unique to the Tablet PC. I'll limit my thoughts here to the latter.

My biggest concern is that many of our spaces encourage students (and faculty) to use the Tablet simply as a notebook. The work surfaces and seating in these places are set up to facilitate typing on a computer. My experience is that most users need all the encouragement they can get to spend the needed time getting used to the Tablet as a tablet. These spaces don't encourage that. In fact they actively discourage it by making it difficult to use the Tablet in writing mode.

Consider, for example, what a study carrel might look like if designed for a Tablet user. Would there necessarily be a rigid, flat rectangular surface? When used as a notebook, this would be a very beneficial, especially with a top-heavy unit like the TC1100. But what about when it is used like a Tablet? For me at least, the desktop is in the way most of the time. When I work at a surface like that, I often end up turning sideways so that I can hold the Tablet in my lap and write. The best writing angle I've found is achieved when the Tablet is balanced on my crossed legs. Any books or other materials are then on the tabletop at my left. But being the easily distractible sort, this doesn't work well in an environment where there is much traffic. There has to be a way to improve this work space. Making the space deeper to better block distractions would help a lot, at least for someone like me. Perhaps a solution is a flexible work surface, on where part of the desktop can be moved out of the way to make space for crossed legs with a Tablet on them.

In the same public-area vein, docking stations in study areas, particularly carrels, would be a huge improvement of the workspace, albeit one that seems at odds with what I just said since they would require the flat rectangular surface. Whenever I am at my desk, I use the extended desktop if I am not actually writing. (When I am, I sit in that same half-turned position I just described. It gives me a crick in my neck after too long, so I guess my office could stand some ergonomic improvements, too.)

Classroom furniture could also use some reconsidering. Flexibility is again going to be key—some want a desktop even when writing, others want nothing in the way of their arms and legs when the Tablet is in their laps. In a public area, one might have different kinds of surfaces or work areas to address the different needs, but in a classroom the same desk or table will need to service the needs of many individuals in rapid succession.

Student lounge areas and common sitting areas are other places where I see a need for alternatives, although I think these are generally better than the more formal study or academic spaces. At Vermont Academy, our lounge furniture tends to be low with deep seats (i.e., long front-to-back). From what I've seen this encourages bad posture to begin with, but it also makes it hard to hold the Tablet in one's lap and use it. I think even bean bag chairs would be an improvement.

One other area that I've thought of so far is the question of lighting. Glare, whether from overhead lights or from windows has always been a problem for computer use. We have invested in anti-glare fixtures for a lot of our computer spaces and that has worked quite well for the vertical screens of desktops. Now, however, we have screens that are more horizontal. Even with the non-glare fixtures in my office, I am looking directly at a reflection of the lights overhead if I don't hold the Tablet at a certain angle or facing a certain direction. I don't know what the answer is here (ambient floor lighting?), just the question.

I'm sure that there is much more in this area to consider. I'm equally sure that a lot of these concerns won't be addressed before next year when we fully roll out Tablets to all students. But at least the discussions will begin and maybe we can address things over time. I would love to hear from others who have thought about this and especially from others who have found good ways of addressing it. I would love to hear as well from anyone who thinks I'm making a mountain out of a molehill...

Monday, November 07, 2005

What is HP Thinking?

Imagine for a moment that you had a product that was innovative and unique in a market comprised largely of products that were all essentially timid me-too offerings. Imagine that your product had garnered a substantial share of the market because of its these qualities, and that it had a user base that bordered on the fanatic in their support and enthusiasm for your product. Would you throw that product away in favor of yet another me-too product line?

Most of us would laugh at the suggestion, yet it appears that this is precisely what HP is doing with the TC1100. While originally the word was that the TC1100 would cease production at the end of 2005, apparently production has already ceased and the channel is drying up. Their other offering, the TC4200 is a fine machine, no question. But it is also just another convertible notebook with a digitizer in the screen. Cheap? Sure. Nice keyboard? No doubt. (Though Thinkpads still rule this area.) Great screen? Yep. Flexible? Not very. Exciting? No way.

This is a move that I simply don't understand.

But not only is HP making this huge mistake, they have compounded it with poor communication. For a long time, there was no more than a rumor that this was going to happen. Now I admit that I am not very well connected at HP, but no one I could reach there would make a clear statement on the subject until recently. (I have been dogging this since mid-summer.) When I asked one HP representative whether the TC1100 was going to be discontinued, the only response I got was that "HP remains committed to the Tablet PC platform." A pretty non-committal non-answer. Which, I guess, was telling in itself if I had been willing to see it.

Since that time, HP has confirmed that the TC1100 is history. But in addition, my sources tell me that there is a new model coming out around the start of Q2 2006. It looks as if it will weigh about 3 pounds and have a 12" screen. There is no more information available than that. They can't even say if it is a slate, a convertible or, we can only hope, a hybrid. If so, I'll gladly wear egg on my face for this posting. (Well, part of it. They still screwed up in the way they handled it.)

I don't want this posting to become a rant or, worse, a whine so I won't go on with it. But Mr. Hurd, if you are listening, this is one decision that HP needs to reconsider. The TC1100 is not perfect, but it is terrific. Tweak it, don't kill it. I'll be glad to give you suggestions on what is needed. Better yet, ask in the Tablet PC Buzz HP forum, the most active forum on the most active Tablet PC site--all because of the TC1100.