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So What’s The Big Deal With Tablet PCs, UMPCs And This Inking Thing Anyway?



I get asked the question that titles this post a lot, living and working in a small not-for-profit world where most folks beg, borrow, and operate with used computer equipment and are thankful to have that. People observe me working with my Tablet PC, read my blog, and until they get a chance to actually go for it themselves and get hands on with a Tablet PC, some look at the Tablet PC as just another one of my toys. Of course prying mine out of my hands for them to work with is akin to asking me if you can take my wife out for a date.

I think that clever toy or geek-gadget impression is far too often the perception for people who haven’t experienced what a Tablet PC, and for that matter a UMPC, brings to the table. For this post when I say Tablet PCs I’m including UMPCs in the mix, even though as a device the UMPC offers a whole set of unique promises for the future. But let’s not forget, at the core the UMPC is also a Tablet PC and brings those options to bear as well. (Some mainstream reviewers would be well served to keep that point in mind.) So, here’s my take on what truly makes a Tablet PC, in all of its forms, a worthwhile investment and, dare I say, a life-changing tool.

I repeat this mantra over and over again and it is at the core of my belief’s about Tablet PCs. Tablet PCs put the personal back into personal computing. Cute, clever, catchy, but what do I mean?

The first time you take a Tablet PC onto your porch, into your backyard, down the hall to someone else’s office, go stall-surfing, or just lounge around in bed reading an e-book, you discover one of the key promises of the platform: mobility. The ability to work and play anywhere is more than freeing and in my experience has made me much more productive on any number of fronts. Are there other mobile solutions out there? Sure. It can be argued that a non-Tablet PC laptop can give you the same freedom, and that other mobile solutions exist and keep arriving everyday. Here’s where the key difference hits home: Personal choice when it comes to interaction with the device and inputing data.

Think of the device(s) you use most during your work and play. Think of the restrictions that are placed on you by the form factor when it comes to entering and manipulating data. We’re all used to keyboard and mouse input and there are many who have keyboard shortcuts so wired into their systems that I think their offspring will be born genetically knowing how to make fingers dance on a keyboard. The same is true with many other form factors in the mobile sector. How many thumb wizards are out there. There’s even a ““condition” out there for that now. Oh, and remember how folks thought about the mouse when it first rolled across desktops? The funny thing is we are so used to the current methods of input, we don’t realize how restrictive they are. Until we take the time to get a Tablet PC in our hand, that is.

With a Tablet PC you have an arsenal of multiple input options that give you a choice and that is the key. Forget the argument that many Tablet PCs are slate models without a keyboard and forget the very ill-informed commentary about UMPCs being without a keyboard. You want a keyboad, add one and get over it. That’s a no brainer if you prefer a keyboard to input data. Heck, The Apple Mini doesn’t come with one either and though they are very small, they won’t do you much good in a mobile setting. Between current day Tablet PCs with pen input and UMPCs with pen and touch input your options have increased many fold. And don’t forget voice as a method of inputing data either. It’s not talked about much(pun intended), but it is extremely viable. Also remember touch will be an option for Vista as well and I’m sure we’ll see a raft of hardware supporting that in the future. A quick anecdote from Marc Orchant on one of the recent OnTheRun With Tablet PCs podcasts. Marc talked about his note-taking style and how doodles, graphics, and drawings were a key part of his experience. Can you do that with a keyboard if you are so inclined?

So, Tableteers focus a lot on digital ink and pen input and rightly so. It’s a crucial, very visible and sexy part of the arsenal, but I’m wondering lately if our focus wouldn’t be better placed on the variety of input methods Tablet PCs offer and not just on inking as a selling point. Flexibility is very attractive for a mobile lifestyle. Simple point: anyone looked at how many ways you can edit a sentence that you might create with ink in the TIP lately? Amazing. And I’ll be the first to admit I was skeptical about using the pen to input data when I made my first Tablet PC purchase, which is why I went the convertible Tablet PC route. It didn’t take me long to realize the potential of the pen as an input device other than just writing notes. And it didn’t take me long to realize that the choice of using the pen along with any other method was extremely freeing.

Let’s also face facts that there is also still some distance to travel until we get the ultimate inking and/or touch experience. The engineering hasn’t caught up enough yet to make everything as transparent as it should be. But it will.

And speaking of hardware and engineering, there are miles to travel there as well with battery life, heat issues, screen resolution (come on OEMs there are needs for high-res Tablet PCs out there), but those targets are still moving ones. And, if you’re not looking to closely those issues aren’t just related to Tablet PCs/UMPCs but any new technolgy that you’re taking mobile with you these days that you expect full computing power from. I mean, let’s get real, how many gonads did Apple grill with their new laptops before they made a correction and stopped using the term laptop as a description?

Bottom line is this, going mobile you are going to need to make compromises and as the hardware innovation catches up with concept they are eventually going to be less and less. But until that happens, let’s really examine they key selling points of the Tablet PC/Mobile concept closely and focus on what I wholeheartedly believe is the single biggest selling point for the mobile pro: Choice and Flexibility on how you can input data.


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