Entelligence shares no wisdom on the Tablet PC

Analysis on Dick Brass’ take on Microsoft’s “creative destruction” continues to trickle in. This time, Michael Gartenberg takes up the topic on his Entelligence column for Engadget. While Gartenberg is a smart guy, he clearly has not been in the trenches on the Tablet PC issue.

Brass says that Tablet PCs were doomed because Office apps didn’t work directly with pen input. There’s no doubt a pen-enabled Office might have helped Tablet PC take hold in the market, but I don’t think that was the main issue — I think that once again, the technology was simply not up to the vision.

True enough. Tablet technology when Windows XP Tablet PC Edition was released was very immature, but that’s what happens when you try to pioneer a new field. Microsoft didn’t enter the tablet market because it was booming. The intention was to shape the nascent market, to put a tablet in everyone’s hands, which is a long-term process. To say tablet technology at the time did not live up to the vision misses the point.

Early Tablet PCs were expensive since the tablet features were a costly add-on, and they often had inferior specifications to cheaper non-tablet laptops. Worse, Tablet was a feature grafted on to Windows, which wasn’t designed to be used for a pen.

Yep, still true, but the software leads the hardware in this case. Tablet PC functionality in Windows was designed as an add-on and the hardware followed suit. Yet, this wasn’t the entire vision. Legacy hardware, such as SCSI ports, were not allowed as part of the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition spec. Tablet PCs were supposed to be streamlined pieces of hardware.

Unfortunately, there were no such demands on the software. No SCSI ports allowed but software drivers were still there. Not only was there no streamlining of the software, but it actually went in the opposite direction, adding tablet functionality on top of the normal version of Windows. So what happened?

Arguably, Office apps modified to work with a pen would likely have not been properly optimized for the core Windows experience of mouse and keyboard.

And there you go. The “core” Windows experience of mouse and keyboard won out. Brass pointed this out when he explained the Office VP preferred the keyboard, and it seems he wasn’t alone. None of that “core” experience was stripped out, despite there being no mouse or keyboard on the prototype slate Bill Gates unveiled at Comdex. Yes, even then plug-in peripherals were conceivable, as was the convertible form factor, but it makes no sense that a device without mouse and keyboard still be optimized for that “core” experience. Given Brass’ criticism of the Tablet Input Panel (“Annoying, clumsy and slow”), I doubt it was ever his intention that the TIP be the tablet’s main input system. I suspect he found his hands tied, not just at Office, but also at any attempt to alter the “core” Windows experience. And finally…

Brass also conveniently ignores OneNote, the Office app that was indeed optimized for Tablet and is often the key app that justifies a tablet PC purchase. That app, of course, came from the Office group.

Smart choice of words, but it “conveniently ignores” that OneNote was also not created for Tablet PCs, despite what is claimed on their official blog. It is the Office app that best takes advantage of the Tablet PC, but you’d never know it from reading its online description. And again, it’s ONE app in nine years.

Bottom line: Gartenberg’s points are factual yet incomplete. Sure, we can claim honestly that Microsoft’s vision has been ahead of the technology, but where is their software now that the hardware has caught up? Maybe if there was real support nine years ago from within Microsoft, we wouldn’t be celebrating “The Year of the Tablet” mostly without them now.