TechCrunch: People don’t know what to do with Tablet PCs


In a post about the eBook design of the next-generation OLPC, John Biggs of TechCrunch thinks he’s figured out why Tablet PCs haven’t faired well, but an eBook design like this will.

“A laptop is an interactive tool. An ebook, even if it’s just a glorified, dual screen laptop, is a reading tool. That is why tablet PCs never took off in the mainstream: people don’t know what to do with a form factor that is clearly not a laptop yet is also clearly a powerful computer. There is no way to connect the act of “scratching out words on a tablet” to processing worksheets in a spreadsheet. Why doesn’t the iPhone have handwriting recognition? Because it’s a horrible way to talk to a computer, even now.”

First, I don’t see any reason why a dual-Slate eBook can’t be everything a Slate is and support interactive workbooks–not just read-only material. Second, most Tablet PCs today are convertibles and are pretty much indistinguishable to most people from standard laptops–outside of when the screen is folded down in Tablet mode. And third, the iPhone is a Slate form factor (no permanently attached physical keyboard) and not a full-fledged laptop and it’s doing quite well. So there’s more to all of this than simply whether something is a laptop or not, which has been the conventional wisdom.

Now in terms of handwriting recognition and pen input: What better place is there to support this than in schools? A very good discussion we should have is whether everything should be designed around the keyboard and mouse as our input devices in schools. Should we design programs so that typing an equation with a square root is as easy as typing a word? I can conceive of a program that does this, but is this really the best way to go? I don’t think so. Likewise, what about brainstorming and the arts and, well, doodling. Should everything be so keyboard focused? Again, I don’t think so, yet I can see a world like this evolving.

I’m betting, however, that as software becomes more interactive and devices with other forms of input more common, that we won’t see the keyboard and mouse as the best and only ways to interact with our content. After all, it’s the content that should be kind–not the keyboard, nor the mouse.

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Dave P
14 years ago

I would agree with your assessment and offer another aspect of the debate. Those of us reading this are used to keyboards. The third world is not. The literate third world still uses pen/pencil and paper as a primary input tool and should accept the tablet PC paradigm much more readily than keyboard centric countries like the US.

It is also worth noting that the keyboard is a transient phenomenon. When I went to school, the only class which used keyboards was typing. It was meant to train high school girls so that they could get a job in the typing pool which was a fact of life in most companies. In the 70s, no professional would think of using a keyboard. It is only when computers became cheaper than people that the business world disbanded the typing pools, fired the secretaries, and handed out computers to the masses.

It’s taken about 30 years for people to forget that markups used to be made with real marks; that cut and paste used to mean scissors and glue. In far less than another 30 years I suspect that we will still talk about keying things in and clicking on things but that we will accomplish it without keyboards or mice.

14 years ago

Well said.

Reminds me of the term “computer” itself. During its orginal meaning (attributed to somewhere in the 1600’s) a “computer” was a person who worked through numbers. Then in the late 1800’s with the advent of more intricate mechanical devices, the term “mechanical computer” was born. This in turn led to “electronic computers” in the 1900’s, which we now simply refer to as “computers.”

What our expectations are many times does not depend on laws of physics, but rather what we’re used to as you describe.

Who knows, maybe someday, our “computers” will become so powerful and aware of their surroundings that we’ll call them “Robots.” 🙂 Here’s hoping.