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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.



  1. Irked Inker

    02/04/2010 at 1:48 pm

    “the tablet group at Microsoft was eliminated”

    Nail in the coffin?

  2. Sumocat

    02/04/2010 at 1:57 pm

    Irked Inker: I should have addressed that point. I believe the tablet group was renamed “Pen and Touch” (though that does not seem to cover all pen and touch related projects), reflecting a shift in focus on input to include touchscreen desktops and laptops. It’s not as dire as it seems.

  3. Irked Inker

    02/04/2010 at 1:58 pm


  4. Steven

    02/04/2010 at 2:07 pm

    Ten bucks says that VP is carrying around either an iPhone or a touch screen phone today. I somehow doubt Ken Hinckley was at that meeting. Here’s hoping he has been to some at this level since arriving.

  5. smh

    02/04/2010 at 2:17 pm

    No surprise here. This is how development is done in large corporations, it just shows how amazing the engineers must have been to still get such successful products out.

    I’m sure that if microsoft had released the tablet in ’01 we would look at all kinds of criticism right now. It is unfortunately human nature to always want better and more exclusive things.

  6. Scott

    02/04/2010 at 3:25 pm

    I think of OneNote as my “Word” for my tablet…if it had a way to draw a table and manipulate the data in it, then it would also be “tablet Excel”

    As we saw in an earlier post, for speed/heavy work, the keyboard still rules, so I don’t think having totally pen-abled full word and excel is a killer (but it would be cool and could be done).

    For the light kind of work that you’d do when mobile or in tablet mode, I’d really like an “Excel” built into my OneNote. Something with the functionality of MathJournal, which kinda-sorta does something like this.

  7. griz8791

    02/04/2010 at 3:43 pm

    IIRC, Apple eliminated the Newton shortly after the beginning of the most recent Jobs administration. Jobs was on record publicly ridiculing the idea of pen input: “real computers have keyboards” or something like that.

    The MS Office executive sounds eerily similar to Jobs. In addition to those two, there are apparently hundreds if not thousands of tech pundits and self-styled experts who think the whole idea of pen input is a joke. I don’t really begrudge those guys their uninformed opinions, but wish they didn’t all think it was their mission in life to kill off the whole idea of pen input.

    Finally, I think there was a plug-in for Excel at one point that allowed direct pen entry into a cell without the TIP. I forget who released it. Then there was Loren Heiny’s awesome proof-reading plug-in for Word 2003, which was never updated to Word 2007, much less Word 2010. I’m not blaming Loren or those excel guys for not updating their plug-ins, just wondering why all that stuff dropped off the radar screen.

  8. Sumocat

    02/04/2010 at 3:49 pm

    griz8791: The Excel plug-in was TipX, which I mentioned along with Loren’s InkGestures. They both dropped off the radar because they only work with the 2003 versions of their respective apps. At least for InkGestures, the dramatic change in the way the 2007 version worked would have meant a complete recode.

  9. griz8791

    02/04/2010 at 3:51 pm

    Sorry, I somehow missed your references to those my first time through your post. It would really be handy if we had something like those plug-ins now.

    On a larger note, I live in Montana and it is now 7 years since the first Tablet PCs came out. Even now, every flight I take, my Tablet is the first one the flight attendants have ever seen. And I’m not just talking about local crews based here in the sticks.

  10. feralboy

    02/04/2010 at 3:56 pm

    Really sad. You know, I’m not sure it’s over though, or meant to be, as “eliminated” and “rolled into” are sometimes one and the same except in the eye of the beholder. The buzz word around Microsoft these days is “NUI”, or natural user interface, which, if more than marketing speak, means that they believe the future is multiple input modalities, something they spearheaded with the release of the original tablet so many years ago. Currently, no device bests it, so I have hope for the future. As for Office, I would assume that there may have been enough tunrover to possible get past this. Of course, that’s another three years down the road.

    As it stands, I often write in Word using the TIP. I’m good at it, actually, and once you’ve gotten over the learning curve, it’s quite effective. I usually use it for creative ventures, where speed is not of the essence. After a while, the TIP becomes nearly invisible and the words are allowed to flow.

    That said, I have dreams of an INK processor…if I ever learn to program (working on it, seriously), I would love to create a processor that treats ink nearly as fluidly as Word treats text (resizing and flowing it — a virtual river of ink). Of course, if the project hadn’t been derailed, maybe I’d be doing that in Word today.


  11. SAM

    02/04/2010 at 4:48 pm

    Didn’t you have an article about RitePen program that solved
    probles of writing in spread sheet apps?

  12. Scott

    02/04/2010 at 5:05 pm

    oops…though TipX was a typo (sorry).

    I think Bill Gates, as a managing force, “left” Microsoft long before he did on paper. Microsoft needs visionaries with power to survive into the future.

  13. John Jameson

    02/04/2010 at 5:06 pm

    What is sad for me is that I really enjoyed the tablet experience with Motion’s LE 1700 and I thought things were only going to get better – such as better software from MS. I’m still a Tablet PC fan and I’m glad the OS experience is better, but I think the hardware and software never took off as it should.

  14. Sumocat

    02/04/2010 at 5:37 pm

    SAM: Actually, I can do a lot more than enter data in Excel using ritePen. Pen macros enable all the little shortcuts I would normally use. However, the approach is basically the same as using a plug-in. If anything, it highlights the problem of not having a tablet-specific version of Excel. For me, ritePen is a more versatile fix than the TIP but still a fix.

  15. Ben

    02/04/2010 at 8:32 pm

    If someone in charge of Word was acting to block an even higher executive order, he should have been fired or something. The Tablet PC was supported even by Gates himself! Since when is a project manager, even of Word, more powerful than the CEO?

  16. sbtablet

    02/05/2010 at 9:25 am

    I just finished spending a day grading papers, marking them up with ink. I have a choice, I can leave the papers in MS Word, and use the limited and annoying ink mark-up tools in the application, then save them to PDF to embed the ink before returning them to students, or I can print them to OneNote, mark up with less irritation, and then save them to PDF in OneNote, which leaves a frame around the text and makes everything smaller and harder to read when I return them. Neither is optimal for a simple edit, but I much prefer it to the pain of using the keyboard for the same task with the silly notes and remarks features.

    The ink in Word is buried in the Review tab. It does not remember the color and size of the last pen you used, always reverting to fat red on every new document. When I add my grading form to the end of the document, if I have ink at the end of the student’s paper, the form doesn’t know it’s there, and ends up on top of it. There’s no way to grab your ink and move it. Thus, I have to always remember to add the form before I start inking. There are a myriad of other minor irritants that slow me down because nobody thought about what you might want to do with ink, even for review. It’s worse if you just want to write.

    OneNote feels much more ink friendly, but it slows me down to have to print every student paper to OneNote, and then takes up hard drive with both a Word and a OneNote copy in my files. And, as I mentioned, I would REALLY like to make a PDF without the extra frame around it.

    Any software designer who spent a week or two with these programs and a pen could make them work better for ink. Why don’t they? Outside applications have proved it can be done right.

    Even with all this whining, I have to say that overall, I find the use of my tablet pc and ink for grading is a much more intuitive and efficient task than using the keyboard tools in Word. I get to do exactly what I would do on paper, without killing quite so many trees, and with the ease of electronic submission and return. Added plus, I don’t worry about losing papers in a stack somewhere.

    I wish Microsoft actually believed in the tablet pc. I do.

  17. Scott

    02/05/2010 at 3:18 pm

    When I get papers electronically, I use PDF Annotator when I mark up student papers (print word docs to pdf then open and ink in Annotator).

    Of course, that solution costs precious teacher $$$

    From the sound of it, I am NOT going to upgrade to Office 2010.

  18. griz8791

    02/05/2010 at 10:54 pm


    If you can print the students’ Word docs to pdf, why not mark them up with PDF Annotator? That would be one way to do away with extra margin. At this point I would have to say PDF Annotator is the brightest spot in my daily workflow.

  19. Brett Gilbertson

    02/07/2010 at 4:46 pm

    Hear hear sumocat. This does explain a lot. Time for some real innovation with leadership from MS.

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