I’ve been using Windows-based tablet computers for almost a decade. I was hooked the moment Bill Gates trotted out Microsoft’s first prototype tablets at a developer event in mid-2001. I got my first tablet, a Fujitsu Stylistic, in 2003 and I’ve carried it or its successors to meetings ever since, migrating along the way from Windows XP Tablet Edition to Vista to Windows 7. Nothing beats a Tablet PC for capturing notes during meetings and presentations, especially if the material contains diagrams, graphs or mathematical equations. When I’m not using my tablet to take notes, I use it to get my mail via Outlook, or to work on documents and spreadsheets with Word and Excel. It’s usually the only mobile system, other than my phone, that accompanies me when I travel.
Some suggest that the structure of the tablet market has already been settled. Apple rules, Android-based suppliers challenge; no other platforms need apply. The failures of HP’s Touchpad and RIM’s Playbook prove there’s no room for another software platform. I beg to differ. Android and iOS tablets do a yeoman’s job when it comes to consuming content, but lack the software tools and hardware features needed to create content. Windows-based tablets, which have been around since 2002, have always included the features needed for content creation, but lacked the easy to use interfaces needed for content consumption. The Metro User Interface in Windows 8 supplies these missing elements, and thus positions Win 8-based tablets as the only ones suitable for those who want to both create and consume content on a single device.
“Content Creation” as I use the term applies to a broad range of activities that includes tasks as varied as a student taking notes, a worker recording and distributing meeting notes, a club secretary assembling and distributing newsletters, a teenager spiffing up the audio from a band performance, a webmaster updating a website, and a mother preparing her annual Christmas letter. Contemporary PCs and MacBooks handle such work effortlessly. But, have you tried to accomplish tasks like these on an iPad or Android tablet? The process is at best arcane, and often impossible. Printing from a tablet? Most of the people I know e-mail the files they want to print to their PCs, and print from there. Manage a mail list? Forget about it. iPads and Android tablets work best as “companion devices,” and assume you have access to a PC or MacBook to handle everyday computing tasks. In fact, when I took my new iPad2 out of its box, it insisted that I connect it to iTunes running on a PC or Mac before it would let me do anything. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of those systems around my office, but what if I purchased it in the airport store, and tried to use it for the first time on a flight to China?
Windows 8 provides a more complete environment. Unless you’ve spent the last six months on the International Space Station, you’ve probably seen its vaunted Start screen, which replaces the Start menu used in earlier versions of Windows. The various colored blocks, referred to as “tiles,” contain live content updated by applications running in the background. Touch a tile and its associated program fills the screen. Switch from one app to the next by dragging your finger from left to right. Drag your finger up from the bottom of the screen to call up menus for the app. Drag your finger from the right edge of the screen to call up system menus, or to get back to the Start screen. Multi-finger gestures for pinching and zooming work intuitively, just as you’d expect. All-in-all, a well architected, contemporary user interface, great for leaning back and reading web content, watching videos, or whatever. But Windows 8 also supports more serious endeavors. Tap on the Desktop tile, and you are instantly transported to the familiar Windows 7 desktop. The applications you invested years learning to use are there in all their glory; not striped down versions that some guy in a marketing department thought were “good enough” for tablet users. Although the touchscreen interface works with these packages, odds are you will want to use a traditional keyboard and pointing device (mouse or track pad) arrangement, whether built into a dock or case, or freestanding. They may be old fashioned, but after 30 years of development, the industry has refined these input devices to the point where they’re hard to beat for content creation.
Digital Ink: Microsoft’s Unsung Advantage
Microsoft’s Tablet PC software includes a feature it calls “digital ink” that allows users to write on the surface of the display the same way one writes on a sheet of paper. The system makes no attempt to convert pen strokes entered this way into machine-readable text in real time, a la Apple’s failed Newton (although the option remains to convert information entered this way into a more conventional format if needed). Digital ink documents can be filed and searched in the same manner as conventional text documents. My tablet contains inked notes I’ve entered over the last eight years; I back them up, transfer them from one machine to another, and read them on my desktop when needed. Almost nobody knows this feature exists. Often, when I’m scribbling notes on my tablet at a conference, people sitting nearby will ask me what magical device I’m using. They’re amazed when I tell them it’s a five-year old tablet PC that runs Windows 7 and Office. I view Micro0soft’s failure to capitalize on this feature to be one of its biggest marketing disasters ever, almost as bad as Vista or Bob.
I don’t doubt the claims of a few of my colleagues that they can type faster than they can write. But can they capture graphic information as well? Here’s a snippet from the notes I took at a recent event where Intel’s Mark Bohr discussed the company’s new 22 nanometer technology. I captured the charts Bohr flashed on the screen on my tablet as he touted the advantages of Intel’s approach. I doubt any of my colleagues could key this in on their PCs.
Digital ink has always struck me as one of the most natural ways (other than pen on paper) for students to take notes in class or attendees to take notes in meetings. Yet Windows Tablets with this feature never gained much market share. Some of this resistance can be attributed to the premium (typically $300 or more) that suppliers charged for Windows Tablets, compared with conventional laptops. Some of this premium stems from the specialized hardware needed to implement digital ink (see below), which adds to the cost of Windows-based tablets. Suppliers like MSI omit such hardware in the interest of lowering the system’s cost. I’m confident the cost premium will shrink over time. I’m less confident that Microsoft will figure out how to market this capability successfully.
Since there will likely be a range of Windows 8 Tablets on the market, some with and some without the hardware needed to handle digital ink correctly, buyers who care about this feature should evaluate the specs of the devices they are considering with regard to the digitizer technology they use.
All told, Windows 8 melds a modern multi-touch user interface that’s great for consuming content with Microsoft’s successful Windows 7 environment that excels at creating content. No other tablet OS can deliver this one-two punch.