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Bill Gates: voice + pen + keyboard = netbook?



In an interview with a BNET blogger (via All Things Digital), Microsoft founder Bill Gates, when asked about the iPad, came out swinging in defense of his favored form factor.

“You know, I’m a big believer in touch and digital reading, but I still think that some mixture of voice, the pen and a real keyboard…”

Yeah! Voice! Pen! Keyboard! What’s that add up to?

“- in other words a netbook – will be the mainstream on that”

That’s right, the mainstream will be a Tabl… wait, what? A netbook? Aren’t those little notebooks that Microsoft used to think could operate fine running three apps at a time and no pen or touch support? Of the handful of models that offer tablet functionality, don’t they all have touchscreens without active pen digitizers? And since when is voice control commonly associated with netbooks? “In other words,” who puts voice, pen and keyboard together and comes up with “netbooks”?

I must not be reading this correctly. Here’s the full quote:

“You know, I’m a big believer in touch and digital reading, but I still think that some mixture of voice, the pen and a real keyboard – in other words a netbook – will be the mainstream on that,” he said. “So, it’s not like I sit there and feel the same way I did with iPhone where I say, ‘Oh my God, Microsoft didn’t aim high enough.’  It’s a nice reader, but there’s nothing on the iPad I look at and say, ‘Oh, I wish Microsoft had done it.'”

I agree with part of that. It’s not as if Microsoft didn’t aim high enough; they just didn’t hit the target. As for what I wish Microsoft had done compared to the iPad, a tablet-centric interface and Office app support are just two things that come to mind. Better developer support and promotion would also have been nice.

But the real insult, in case I wasn’t clear, is that Gates actually said “some mixture of voice, the pen and a real keyboard” adds up to a netbook. Yeah, maybe if you subtract out the voice and pen, but to me, that adds up to a Tablet PC. Sure, there are tablet-style netbooks, but by that logic, a Tablet PC is just a tablet-style notebook. And if netbooks are the future of the mainstream, that doesn’t look good for Microsoft either. Their netbook support has been, to put it lightly, lacking. Plenty there they should have done differently too.

Between this and Microsoft’s decision to finally end their Tablet PC blog, 2010 isn’t the year Microsoft lost tablet; it’s more like the year they washed their hands of it.



  1. Josh Einstein

    02/11/2010 at 10:45 am

    Yeah I don’t quite think he meant that current netbooks are the utopia of mobile computing or even “good enough”. I think he was extending his point about the fact that you can’t sacrifice the keyboard. In other words, netbooks will be more usable than the iPad because not having a keyboard is simply not an option for anyone that wants to do anything other than read. But he’s right that you need a combination. Touch without pen is useless too. Eventually I may feel the same about an interface that doesn’t take advantage of voice.

    I don’t know about you but even though I have an iPhone, I frequently toss it aside and whip out the convertible tablet when I need to… say… comment on a post like this. The iPad will have the same problem.

  2. ashley

    02/11/2010 at 11:28 am

    i think the ipad is sweet. peace out

  3. ashley

    02/11/2010 at 11:29 am

    you guys are all wrong the ipad will help out with everyday things

  4. Steve S

    02/11/2010 at 11:54 am

    …A bit like Josh, I don’t take Gates literally; I think he’s saying that current tablets are too big and heavy, and that the netbook form factor is more fitting with his vision of mobility… and that he has reconsidered the importance of a keyboard as a complement to pen, touch and voice recognition…

  5. Loren Heiny

    02/11/2010 at 12:35 pm

    The physical vs virtual keyboard argument is going to depend on the quality of the experience–in both cases.

    There are plenty of netbook physical keyboards that people don’t care for, just as there are many virtual keyboards people don’t like using. Suggesting every physical keyboard trumps all virtual keyboard experiences, has been true up to this point on all notebooks/Tablet PCs/netbooks that I can think of, but do these past experiences still hold true with the iPad? We’ll have to see. I’m sure it depends a lot on how much text you have to create vs read and how you’ll be holding/using the virtual keyboard on the iPad.

    Remember, for many 7-10″ netbooks, physical keyboards have led to poor experiences. The OEMs look like they’ve been adjusting though, and have been responding with netbooks with better keyboards. But the bar is pretty low–or at least people’s expectations of the quality of the experience is pretty low. Hence, this gives more headroom for a virtual keyboard to compete in.

    Anyway, is there also room for a pen and touch-based device without a physical keyboard? Yes. Take a look at the handwritten notes from attendees of the this year’s TED conference courtesy of Robert Scoble’s Flickr feed: Note the others that are typing notes or messages using the keyboardless iPhone.

    Is this a trend? Maybe we’re at an inflection point where the market needs and the technology are making onscreen keyboards more practical. Again, we’ll have to see.

  6. bluespapa

    02/11/2010 at 7:22 pm

    Netbook popped into my head, Sumocat. ‘Samatter with you?

    I’ve walked into many tech in higher ed meetings and been the only one with a Tablet or UMPC. The whole business of wither goes the Tablet PC has me as angry and befuddled as anyone.

  7. Nameless

    02/11/2010 at 7:51 pm

    I’m skeptical of the term “netbook” being used like that, but that’s because of the few that even have convertible Tablet PC functionality, NONE have Wacom pen digitizers. It’s usually just a basic stylus on a resistive digitizer. \

    Better than nothing, but I don’t see the point when one such netbook usually costs as much or more than a similar Tablet PC of years past.

    Then again, he did mention a keyboard, and when one says “Tablet PC”-emphasis on “Tablet”-they’ll be thinking of keyboard-less slates, NOT the convertible models with keyboards that many of us favor.

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