When it comes to futuristic concepts, few ideas have captured the imagination like pen-based computing. The idea of doing away with a cumbersome keyboard for navigating and entering information has long been a Holy Grail, but it has met with little success. Microsoft's Tablet PC operating system has failed to take the world by storm.
Several factors have slowed or doomed pen-based platforms, but they can all be overcome.
First, handwriting recognition has never lived up to its hype, nor can it. If you can't read your own handwriting, then it isn't reasonable to expect a computer to be able to. The key to overcoming the shortcomings of handwriting recognition is to emphasize the other aspects of a tablet user interface, such as electronic ink for note taking, and to use the pen and tablet mode for things like consuming and editing information.
Second, most hardware has been inadequate, even when the software was good enough. Pen computing loses much of its powerful allure when too many trade-offs are needed in order to gain the pen-based functions. This is precisely the problem that has plagued the current generation of tablet PCs.
Too often, users are forced to deal with shortcomings when it comes to weight (tablets should be light enough to use comfortably in tablet mode), battery life and keyboards. A good tablet PC has to be portable enough to deliver a good pen experience while not compromising on screen, keyboard or battery so that it can deliver a good notebook experience as well. Today, only a few computers provide this experience, led by the newest member of the ThinkPad family, the x41 tablet.
Pen computing isn't dead, but it is stagnant. For small devices where browsing is more important than content creation, the pen is an ideal navigation tool. But when it comes to composing information like e-mail, thumb keyboards are proving superior, even in small devices.
Despite Microsoft's best efforts, tablet PCs haven't really caught on. Still, with devices like the x41 coming to market, it's time for IT to take another look at the functionality of tablet PCs and see where it makes sense to deploy them. There are a lot of places where the pen is mightier than the keyboard.
Michael Gartenberg is vice president and research director for the personal technology and access and custom research groups at Jupiter Research