(Hand) Writing on the Wall: Ray Ozzie and the Past Tense of Tablet PCs

Rob has already penned his thoughts on this. Here are mine.

Loren Heiny points to an interview from last week’s PDC with Ray Ozzie where the past tense is everything. Here’s the quote (emphasis is mine):

““Windows 7 is just innately, if you play with it, a great release. I think the doubters will see — if there was anything that we had done that they lost their confidence in, we’re past that point, and I think that the positive thing that will draw people in, in many cases, is the touch work. I won’t go so far as to say it’s the next mouse, meaning it will be on everything and you have to use it. But it’s not going to be like the Tablet PC, where it was truly niche. I think it will go broader and broader. Because it’s such a hot thing in phones now, that will just drive the technology and manufacturing costs down and the PC will benefit, just like we’ve benefitted from televisions dropping the cost of LCD.”

Loren goes on in his post to say that it isn’t that Tablet PCs are niche devices but that they’ve by and large been sold as niche devices. I certainly agree, and goodness knows I’ve filed enough blog posts here saying so. Loren wishes Microsoft wouldn’t talk down its innovations. So do I, but it is time, now that Windows 7 is seeing the light of day led by a new regime at Microsoft, to face the music that has been playing in the background for quite some time now.

While Ozzie may not have intended any deep meaning in his past tense statement about Tablet PCs the fact that Tablet PCs were referred to at all is significant. The fact that they were referred to in comparison to the new touch approach is huge. The future of Microsoft is moving towards the cloud and touch. If you followed any of the announcements at PDC you can’t walk away with any other impression. If fact that has been well known and obvious for quite some time.

Ozzie is right that Windows 7 will be a positive change in direction. But, Microsoft will have to overcome all the negative framing that it allowed to occur around Vista in order for it to do so. If Microsoft wanted to do the same with Tablet PC the challenge would be the same and just as large. The difference, in my opinion, is that we don’t have a strong enough push from inside advocating Tablet PCs. Curiously though, the new TIP innovations in Windows 7 show some real progress and that things continue to evolve on that front. So, there is some hope. What bears watching is if any of that ever gets mentioned in any of the hype Microsoft tries to gin up about Windows 7. I’ll be surprised if it ever does.

While there may yet be a future for Tablet PCs as mobile solutions beyond a niche scale, Windows 7 with its touch and cloud approach will dominate Microsoft’s landscape for at least the next 4 to 5 years. That timing is significant given how long these things take to churn. It certainly gives Apple more time to hem and haw about whether or not they are ever going to think seriously about handwriting as an input method. Wacom and N-Trig (and others) will have something to say about this as well, and Wacom’s recent announcement is certainly welcome news, even as broad an announcement as it is.

Forgetting the politics, the technological hurdles, and the obvious total lack of understanding when it comes to marketing Tablet PCs, it just continually strikes me as odd that so few see the simple benefit. So much time and effort is spent on mechanical solutions for inputting data, ignoring the fact that humans still reach for a pen/pencil and paper so many times to record a simple note. I’m dumbfounded by the lack of progress here as well as the seeming lack of desire to capitalize on this.

But then creating a simple note taking device isn’t about finding a sexy way for folks to navigate through content that ads can be attached to, and that is stored on servers that require bandwidth that can be charged for.