By Harry McCracken | Friday, May 7, 2010 at 9:45 am
Maybe the Tablet PC isn’t dead. Maybe it’s just resting.
If the marketplace is your yardstick, the machine Bill Gates once predicted would become the world’s dominant computing device by 2006 definitively flopped years ago. But a few days ago during a Fox Business News interview, Gates said that Microsoft hadn’t given up on Tablet PCs and stylus-based input. Yesterday, I attended TechFair, a event the company held at its Silicon Valley campus to show off lab projects from Microsoft Research, which employees 850 researchers in eight locations around the world. Among the demos I saw was proof that it’s still investing in the idea.
A sign next to the demes carried the tagline: “Everything, including TOUCH, is best for something and WORST for something else.” Very true. Rightly or wrongly, I got somewhat defensive vibes from the statement given that Microsoft has invested so hugely in pen-based computing, but it’s touch–largely associated with Apple–that’s caught on.
Steve Jobs would probably disagree, but Microsoft has a point. Fingers are wonderful, but they’re also stubby and imprecise: If handwriting recognition ever works well and catches on, it’s going to involve a pen of some sort. And as much as I’m enjoying using painting programs such as Autodesk SketchBook Pro on the iPad, drawing with your fingertip feels more like fingerpainting than drawing. (The Pogo stylus is a clever kludge, but it only helps so much.)
Microsoft’s demos were being shown on a touch-screen Dell laptop with special drivers that let it accept input from both fingertips and pens. (The fact that the computer is a traditional notebook rather than a tablet doesn’t mean anything–it was the research that was been shown off, not the device.) And Microsoft’s new big idea is that using both fingers and a stylus is better than either method alone.
The Microsoft researcher I spoke with said that Microsoft Research staffers analyzed video of people using pen and paper to perform various tasks. They noticed that those folks tended to work with two hands and use their fingers a lot–for instance, to reposition the paper under the pen as they worked. And the demos involved touch as a compliment to the pen.
For instance, here’s a natural-media painting program. The researcher is using a stylus to paint on the screen, and his fingers to move the “canvas” around:
Another demo involved a Microsoft Surface computing table and gestures which combined stylus and finger input. Here’s the researcher “holding down” a photo with his finger–he’s about to use a (rather chunky) stylus as a virtual X-acto knife to cleanly slice off part of the photo.
All of these demos show basic research–stuff that’s in early, raw form. It may or may not lead to shipping products, and if it does those products may express ideas from the research in ways that have little in common with the tricks Microsoft was performing at TechFair.
Nothing in the demos instantly knocked my socks off. In a way, though, it was more impressive than the much flashier, recently-nixed Courier tablet, which seemed to be Microsoft’s concept of a next-generation Tablet PC. We don’t know whether Courier was anything more than some slick animated sequences and renderings. But these pen-and-touch interfaces are real, albeit experimental. I wonder if they’ll ever get as far as a Steve Ballmer CES keynote, let alone store shelves?