Former Microsoft VP explains why Office sucks on Tablet PC

Former Microsoft VP Dick Brass offers an editorial on The New York Times explaining why Microsoft is declining as a leader in technology. In particular, he points to internal conflicts that wind up derailing innovation efforts, as happened back in 2001 with the Tablet PC.

Another example: When we were building the tablet PC in 2001, the vice president in charge of Office at the time decided he didn’t like the concept. The tablet required a stylus, and he much preferred keyboards to pens and thought our efforts doomed. To guarantee they were, he refused to modify the popular Office applications to work properly with the tablet. So if you wanted to enter a number into a spreadsheet or correct a word in an e-mail message, you had to write it in a special pop-up box, which then transferred the information to Office. Annoying, clumsy and slow.

So once again, even though our tablet had the enthusiastic support of top management and had cost hundreds of millions to develop, it was essentially allowed to be sabotaged. To this day, you still can’t use Office directly on a Tablet PC. And despite the certainty that an Apple tablet was coming this year, the tablet group at Microsoft was eliminated.

The meaning of the term “directly” aside, it is absolutely true that Microsoft Office offers a poor pen experience. The exception to this rule is OneNote, but even it isn’t specifically designed for Tablet PC, and I recall it originally used its own ink format. The TIP is a fine kludge to interact with non-tablet applications, but it’s hardly ideal and certainly we were expecting better from Microsoft’s own products. Instead, we had to turn to plug-ins like Tablet Enhancements for Outlook, InkGestures, and TipX to make Microsoft Office workable, none of which are still under active development.

And why were we Tablet PC users left out in the cold like that? Because some desk-bound, keyboard-loving executive couldn’t wrap his mind around a mobile, pen-based computing experience? So the same mindset that we constantly fight in the keyboard-loving media, that drags the Tablet PC through the dirt, is responsible for making it that way in the first place. Well, that explains a lot.

What’s really baffling is this was nine years ago. I can understand if one guy gets in the way at one point, but how could top management not get any real Tablet PC-specific projects going in that time? A version of Outlook that works like a paper day planner? A version of Word designed for pen editing? Internet Explorer for Tablet PC that matches what I get in Firefox with add-ons? Could we not get anything other than PowerToys and accessory-level apps?

I would really love to blame that one guy for fouling things up forever, but at some point, leadership needs to overcome such obstacles. Clearly that hasn’t happened, and it is embarrassing to everyone involved, myself included, that it might take competition from Apple – NINE YEARS LATER – to get things moving forward, and I’m really not happy about that. Between that and being forced to admit ink on the iPhone (and presumably iPad) isn’t just possible but looks good, this has been a day of Tablet PC disillusionment for me.