Comment: Do not write off stylus PCs

22 Nov 2002 View Comments
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Everyone else has already stuck their oar in regarding Tablet PCs and the version of Windows that supports them, but here's my verdict anyway: stylus systems, like those of Tablet PCs, could become the dominant interface for personal computing. Not this year, or for a while yet. But if you really imagine we'll all still be stabbing away at clunky keyboards in 20 years' time, I urge you to think again.

As with most other Microsoft technologies, there's nothing terribly new or innovative in the Tablet PC. It's just an operating system navigated with a pen on a touch-sensitive screen - a concept examined by hundreds of developers in the past.

The chances are that Microsoft will eventually give up on Tablet PC when it discovers it can't make any big money out of it, or put anyone else out of business with it.

But this doesn't mean the idea won't catch on. Plenty of major software publishers and hardware vendors have been known to withdraw from a dead market just in time to watch, in dumbfounded jealousy, as it springs into new life for some upstart little firm to dominate.

I am reminded of all those companies - from Apple to Amstrad - which killed off their handheld computer products only to witness US Robotics make a killing with the PalmPilot. Calcomp, once the king of input devices, fell to the rank of knave by pulling out of the empty graphics tablet market, leaving Wacom to re-invent the market in its own image and clean up nicely.

Clear concept

There's a common theme to these examples. In each instance the products were hampered by clunky hardware, high prices and no clear concept of what the product would be used for. But these three issues simply define a technology pioneer, not a design failure.

Tablet PCs fall into the same bracket. Early products are too big, cost too much and lack a definite purpose. None of this matters in my opinion because - just like palmtop computers - they will get smaller and cheaper, and before long someone will start thinking up essential applications for them.

The significant thing is that Tablet PCs are a leap away from accepted touchscreen conventions. Apple's cumbersome Newton MessagePad re-invented the stylus as a writing tool rather than a surrogate mouse in much the same way, and Wacom's Cintiq combines a graphics tablet and LCD display into a product that's better than both.

The Tablet PC is the start of a new interface revolution, the importance of which can only be compared with the introduction of the mouse. It allows direct input in the purest form yet conceived. Suddenly, handwriting recognition is a viable technology rather than a joke. Combine the technology with voice recognition, and the potential becomes awesome indeed.

Of course, I can see the drawbacks with putting a computer display in a user's grubby mitts - greasy fingerprints, spilt coffee, and Tablet PCs shattering into pieces after being dropped. But with end-user software increasingly emphasising point-and-shoot techniques, the Tablet PC, or at least one of its successors, is a concept with potential. It has inevitability written all over it.

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