I am not a fan of the Tablet PC format. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I am annoyed with it. Granted, its premise is inherently noble, which is to provide people with the ability to carry their PCs around like a clipboard. But let's face it, we're just not ready for clipboard computing. And I wonder if we ever will be.
I recently tested Motion Computing's M1300 Tablet PC. While it was initially interesting having a device that allows you to draw freehand color pictures and which tries to guess your handwriting (always a fun challenge), the novelty quickly wears out and you're stuck with a heavy device that is neither mobile enough nor PC enough. Sure it's an award-winning unit, but it wasn't the unit that bothered me. It was the idea of Tablet PC computing in general.
Here's the problem: sooner or later, you're bound to weigh the pros and cons between using a Tablet PC device and using a plain old clipboard. And when that happens, you'll start understanding the charms of good old Clippy (and we're not talking Windows Help character here).
First of all, a clipboard is light as a feather and can easily be cradled in your arm as you go about taking notes. Cradling a Tablet PC unit, on the other hand, becomes taxing after just a couple of minutes. Add to that the discomfort of having hot air billow all over your arm from the unit's cooling system and you know that you won't be in the best of moods.
Second, you can practically leave your clipboard anywhere and not worry about anybody swiping it. Heck, you can even use it to reserve your spot at your local food court. But you'd have to be pretty brave to even consider leaving your Tablet PC unguarded for even just a couple of minutes.
Most important, a typical Tablet PC costs about 120,000 pesos. As for Clippy? Just 80 bucks at your friendly National Bookstore.
The biggest attraction of the Tablet PC format was supposed to be its advanced handwriting recognition software, allowing you to scribble notes with the digitizer and watch as they magically turn into ASCII words that can easily be stored. This feature hopes to target groups such as students, field personnel and even doctors. But while Windows XP for Tablet PC's handwriting recognition software is impressive at times, more often than not it simply bogs me down. Handwriting recognition was supposed to allow me to just keep scribbling without looking at my PC. Instead, I spend way too much time looking down just to make sure that the translation comes out perfectly. Now imagine the Tablet PC computer struggling with a doctor’s handwriting.
If I needed to take notes on the field, what I would rather do is to bring Clippy along, write my field notes, and then settle down at my PC at the end of the day and simply pop the papers into my scanner. It won’t be as high-tech, but at least I keep my sanity while out on the field.
I’m not saying that the Tablet PC format is a lost cause. It may simply be a matter of fine tuning its intended market. I would think that these devices could be useful as data entry devices for forms that require a lot of visual real estate, such as survey forms or database input screens, allowing for mobile data entry. But please, Microsoft, don’t claim that the Tablet PC format is already a viable replacement for scribbling notes on a notepad or a clipboard. The sales figures alone for Tablet PCs should be hint enough for Microsoft.
Will I ever consider a Tablet PC? Yes, if. And it's a big IF. Namely, I am waiting for "electronic paper
" technology to reach maturity, allowing us to bend and fold our computer displays like pieces of paper. When and if that ever happens, then the Tablet PC format may finally become practical and handy.
The Motion Computing M1300 Tablet PC is reviewed on the June 2004 issue of m|ph.