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Gartenberg: Why the Tablet PC Didn’t Take Off



Michael Gartenberg has posted a commentary at Engadget entitled, “Why the pen isn’t mightier than the keyboard,” explaining why the Tablet PC and pen computing have failed to take off. He points to the inadequacy of handwriting recognition and hardware as key elements holding back adoption of the Tablet PC and lays out three points to get the form factor moving forward.

Despite the seemingly dour tone, Gartenberg is not attacking the form factor, just pointing out why it’s stuck in its apparent rut. I agree with him on pretty much everything, but that’s largely because he isn’t adding anything we haven’t all been saying for years. Most, if not all, Tablet PC enthusiasts have at some point said Microsoft needs to actively raise awareness (like maybe have someone in their ads buy a Tablet PC, not just cheap laptops) and reach out to potential users and markets. Still, it’s encouraging to see this message on a mainstream tech blog. Hopefully, it will help get the message out beyond our current niche.



  1. Dave in MI

    07/13/2009 at 1:06 pm

    I got a Lenovo X61 a couple years ago. I never use the tablet input. It is not the recognition, it is the simple fact that i type faster than i write. Even if the recognition was perfect, i still input faster on the keyboard.

  2. John Allison

    07/13/2009 at 1:49 pm

    Tablets are a niche device in the professional space and home users seem to want touch uber alles.

    I think that the lack of a Mac tablet, and the small screens/low-powered spec of many Windows tablets, probably put a lot of people in the art/design community off. Once you’re used to using a Cintiq, no Tablet PC ever feels quite right (although the Fujitsus do get close – lovely screens to draw on).

    I think Wacom have only ever gone half-way with Tablet PCs so as not to undercut their, let’s be honest – not cheap – Cintiqs. The cut-down driver that you have to install off their site, the 256 levels of pressure, it’s a compromised design experience when you are used to better from an old Intuos. When a decent mid-range tablet costs less than a Cintiq 12UX, there’s probably a reason for that.

    Whether it’s the laughably narrow portrait mode on modern 12″ widescreens or Lenovo taking the super-useful jog dial off the X200T (presumably to save an all important 75 cents on each unit sold), each new generation of tablets feels like an opportunity wasted to make good, useful, relevant machines that would increase productivity outside the narrow vertical markets where they have taken hold. If the future of the tablet PC is folks jabbing their greasing fingers at the screen of the Asus T91 then we will all be the poorer for it.

  3. Mark H

    07/13/2009 at 2:03 pm

    I’ve been using a TabletPC since 2005. I think it has limited uses and I can understand why the mainstream mightn’t be going for it. One of the problems is that the pen is only usable when the software is designed for it and there isn’t a huge amount of TabletPC software out there. I use Sketch Book Pro and Mind Manager for sketching ideas – and it’s great for that. I’ve given up on Photoshop because the UI is not pen friendly. Another use is ebooks and browsing. I don’t use the handwriting recognition because it makes too many mistakes, instead I use Fitaly which I also use on Windows Mobile.

  4. GoodThings2Life

    07/13/2009 at 3:44 pm

    All I can say is that anyone who so easily dismisses the benefits of a tablet PC is being very narrow-minded.

    I’ve used tablets in education for note-taking and presentations, as a system administrator for quick/easy administrative tasks, and in the medical world for documenting patient records… still, there is so much flexibility with them that it really doesn’t matter what field it is.

    Any business executive or salesman who has lost a sheet of paper with an important client contact or idea should realize how beneficial it would be to have that information and sync it to a server source instantly.

    Any financial person who is in a meeting and is asked to find a figure or generate a report should appreciate the ability to say, “Here, let me run crunch that right now.”

    @Mark H, you talk about how pen-friendly (or not) programs are, and while I’ll agree to an extent– especially for using the TIP for data entry– I really believe that most software can be used without issue, and most of the programs I use daily make effective use without being “pen” driven programs. As for handwriting recognition, I suspect you’re on XP and have never bothered to install the Dictionary Editor function, but suffice it to say that even Vista (and certainly Win7) has dramatically improved that functionality.

  5. Frank

    07/13/2009 at 3:55 pm

    I use my tablet since fall 2007.
    I really love the tablet and use it in tablet mode most of the time when I’m not at home.
    Still, one main problem is the slow input speed.
    The main advantage of a tablet is that I can use it in the train, take a few notes, read a book, … without any hassle.
    But writing this post, an mail or other texts is just awful with the pen. Writing is not only much slower than typing it’s also less fail-safe and more cumbersome to use.
    I often mentioned it that I use a FrogPad keyboard with my tablet, and I think this is an essential device for me, because I can use and type on it with the left hand while writing or drawing with the right. Without it, or without an external keyboard at all, using Photoshop would be really difficult.
    So I think a slate tablet with an one-handed slide out keyboard is necessary if tablet PCs want succeed against other devices.
    Life without a keyboard is impossible and as long as the design of both slates and convertibles don’t allow the user to use both pen and keyboard simultaneous and comfortable, then the tablet PC will stay a niche product.

  6. SAM

    07/13/2009 at 6:58 pm

    We are testing handwritten invoices vs handwritten tablet pc invoices using the Active Ink program.

    The program itself works great, but what we’re running into is getting the tablet pc to recognize 3 different peoples chicken
    scratch handwriting…

    ei. it won’t recognize “dz” (dozen) handwritten(by me) no matter how I try to write it. it recognizes everything from de, dg, eg,dy, and on

    Also, I write and using the shorthand symbol, a habit from
    writing for years, you should see the bizarre results to that.

    One of our employees has a slight tremor when he writes, the recognition software comes up with all sort of crazy translations.

    If there were a way to train the recognition, like
    voice recognition, then it may work better.

    We’re still experimenting before we give up.

  7. Mike

    07/13/2009 at 7:07 pm

    I use my Tablet PC everyday but since I use a computer for more uses than being a 21st century typewriter I don’t use the pen for inputting massive amounts of ascii text (which it wasn’t designed for). Those who want to forget the keyboard for that exercise suffer from the hammer/mail problem.

    The form factor of a portable flat screen (in folded or slate mode, I’ve owned both) along with direct manipulation of objects on the screen is vastly more important to me and makes my Tablet useful in many more places than at a desk.

    I would argue that many home or creative uses are more compelling than the business niche that it ahs been driven into by Microsoft (and web-pundits).

  8. jeff

    07/14/2009 at 10:33 am

    When it comes to the Wacom Cintiq, the high cost is based upon the color and quality of the screen….they are not run of the mill flat panelsbecause their target market is Artists and Photographers.

  9. John Allison

    07/14/2009 at 11:13 am

    Well I stand corrected on that one… although I would still describe the tablet pc experience as (often) a step down from using the Cintiq as an artist – and some tablets have great screens.

  10. Dodot

    07/14/2009 at 7:49 pm

    Granted there isn’t a huge library of applications that are available for the platform (compared at least to the set available for general purpose computing), the best applications – a lot of which are free to use – offer at the present a very wonderful way of utilizing pen-based computing.

    Handwriting recognition isn’t the selling point for me (although I do like that for some programs at least my handwritten notes are recognized and indexed – available for searching when needed); it’s the fact that I CAN scribble on the screen, as I would on paper, that really made me a believer. (All the perks of writing plus the advantage of having your scribbles saved in a digital format – easily manipulated, easily shared, easily archived.)

    In a sense, the tablet is a niche device, there’s no denying that only a small share of the portable computing market has been claimed by Tablet PCs, but in large part this has continued to be the case because so many people have been insisting that it is. (Mainstream media included.) The price differences are not as huge as it was before (just to cite an example around this time last year the TX2500 could be had for less than a thousand dollars), yet there seems to be very little change in the stereotype of the Tablet PC being an expensive “niche” device not fit for general consumption.

    Yes, the keyboard-and-mouse combination is a very important and efficient means to input textual information for processing – it would be silly for anybody to claim otherwise – but that shouldn’t prevent us from exploring the potential of alternative means of inputing NON-TRADITIONAL kinds of information (Digital Ink for example). I can understand the frustration over Handwriting Recognition not being able to fully substitute keyboard input, but is it really reasonable to expect pen-based input to be a fully substitute for this function anyway? (Gartenberg touched on this in his article.) I’d like to see keyboard input make Digital Ink as quickly and intuitively as a pen can. Besides, with each new Operating System, Windows’ native support for Handwriting Recognition is improving by leaps and bounds. I’ve been playing around with Windows 7 RC on a Tablet that previously had Windows XP Tablet Ed., and I’m astounded by how better integrated into the system Digital Inking has become. (For one of my fellow commenters, YES you can now “train” Windows to recognize your handwriting – in fact this feature is already present in Windows Vista.)

  11. Defense Linguistics

    07/15/2009 at 3:54 am

    My computing experiences are completely contrary to Gartenberg’s article. I’ve done text entry at acceptable speeds (over 50 wpm) since my Palm III days. Fact is, I don’t write as fast as I can think–nor does anyone else, I warrant. (If this is the case, then it usually shows in the product and you have to factor in editing and corrections).

    As a technical language teacher, OneNote has changed my life. Without being too stupidly evangelical, it has cut my preparation time by a third and greatly reduced the number of photocopies I’m obliged to distribute to students.

    I don’t care why the Tablet PC isn’t a huge market success. Perhaps because, like Gatenburg’s Tablet PC, every day I get up and “fail to take the world by storm.” So what? I don’t care about consumerist debates. My business model has to be deliberate and precise; I’m happy in my niche and don’t give a damn about whatever machine Joe Sixpack uses to browse whatever Joe Sixpack browses.

    I do care about tools and having continued access to them. Gatenburg’s use of past tenses to describe tablet computing is curious. Why does he wish it were so? And who cares? This is another tedious article about marketing, typed out as quickly as it was thought up.

  12. djasli

    07/15/2009 at 5:58 am

    This is how I input text on my
    Tablet PC- Ink onto Journal, convert
    the handwriting, and copy to the
    comment window, like this here.

    I don’t even need to use the

    My TC 1100 TPC is my one
    and only computer. Portrait mode
    with no keyboard is how I
    worked. I don’t type; it is all

    Really, I don’t see the need
    for handwriting recognition. My
    Tablet is my notebook substitution,
    and I use it like so.

  13. Justin

    07/20/2009 at 10:41 am

    Wrong wrong wrong. Handwriting recognition had nothing to do with it. Anybody that has ever used a keyboard before knows it is a better input device for text. If you look at the core reason someone uses a tablet pc it is becuase of the form factor and the control. With a pen you can have much finer control than a person using touch, or worse, a trackpad. The important thing to understand is that you don’t need more control to browse webpages or send an email or two. Bussiness people do not need finer control nor note taking students. Artist, designers, musicians, and professionals in many fields do however. If you look at this group you would see that while they may be looking for a mobile solution, thier tastes are about utility, proc speed, more ram good video cards and large screen size. Tablet pcs are not a mainstream device, touch is. What failed for tablet pcs was that it tried to be somthing it’s not. It left it’s true early adopters disapponted, by failing to listen, and then in turn failing to cominicate that vision to the people that could really use that kind of extra control in a mobile device.

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