TechCrunch: Handwriting Reco is a Terrible Way to Communicate with a Computer

TechCrunch’s John Biggs has an interesting piece today about the OLPC 2.0, eBooks, and Tablet PCs.

““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.”

Is John right? He is partly on to something, but he is way off on the handwriting reco part. My understanding is that a very hot item in China right now are phones that accept handwriting reco for texting. Remember this piece about Chinese handwriting reco coming to iPhone 2.0? Is Apple doing this because handwriting reco is a horrible way to talk to a computer? Apple knows there is a market and desire for it. I think John’s argument about handwriting reco being a horrible way to talk to a computer is illogical, and is a failed attempt to try to label the Tablet PC a failure.

However, I do believe he is spot on about a general problem with the Tablet PC and its lack of presence in the mainstream: people like dedicated devices to do certain things. My wife would never use a Tablet PC to read eBooks or to take notes. She does, however, love using the Amazon Kindle. That is because the device is built well for what it is designed to do.  Although the dimensions of a Kindle are similar to a UMPC, I hate the experience of reading books on a UMPC. The Kindle and Sony eReader shine at it, though. I don’t enjoy UMPCs very much because the device tries to do tackle to much in software that ends up feeling clunky and uncoordinated. It is also too heavy and has poor battery life. The Tablet PC is the same thing – for taking handwritten notes on the fly, marking things up, the Tablet PC can often seem overkill for the task at hand. That is why I often carry a Moleskine with me. I would love an instant on, ultra-thin device that I could instantly handwrite some notes on.

The flexibility weaknesses for Tablet PCs are also its strength – having handwritten notes with you, along with all of your text based notes, wherever you go. There is no better tool on the market than the Tablet PC for digital note-taking. Much of the appeal in the Tablet PC is the flexibility it offers to the  user in who they want to work, take notes, and interact with the device. Flexibility in the tool, though, can be daunting to many people. Simplicity in use and design is paramount.

Handwriting reco isn’t the problem. It is offering a user experience that is unobtrusive and natural for the task it is designed for. Although Vista and Windows offers great solutions for Tablet PCs, dedicated solutions for handwriting, notetaking, etc in a form factor that tries to get out of the way would take off. That is why I think there is great promise for handwriting reco on devices like the iPhone, MIDs, and ePaper solutions.

Loren Heiny has chimed in on this, too. What does the Tablet PC community think about John Biggs’ opinion?