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Perspective: Tablet PCs, a work in progress

With the official Microsoft launch slated for Thursday, CNET News.com's Charles Cooper gives designers an A for ambition but a B- for execution. Read why.

Scribbling down a phrase I recalled from Thomas Paine, I lightly tapped the computer screen with the plastic stylus.

"Ugh mgash finchit!"

No doubt that translation set ancient hearts aflame in Babylonia, but it was a world away from my selection of "these are times that try men's souls."

So went my first attempt at man-tablet computer symbiosis.

Note to self: Improve penmanship. But though the technology still has a way to go, it's far better than the initial go-around in the early 1990s when pen-based computing had its first 15 minutes in the spotlight. That episode was one of the more spectacular disasters in the history of the computing industry, and many a paid pundit had some words to eat when the revolution got put on hold. (It didn't help that Microsoft's guerrilla tactics helped derail the ambitions of early innovators like Go Corp. and its Penpoint OS, but that's fodder for another column.)

The flame never died out, and after a decade's worth of incremental advances, tablet computers can now run on a decent operating system (courtesy of Microsoft), they are reasonably lightweight (more about that in a moment) and the screens are a lot crisper. They also take advantage of the 802.11 wireless craze. The latter is a huge plus. Had earlier generations of tablet computers featured that kind of Internet capability, this might have turned into a big deal long before now.

I'm sure that the hype accompanying Microsoft's official debut festivities next week will be dutifully over the top, but let's set expectations. Tablet computing suggests a different way of using the computer. I hesitate to describe it as a "new way" because it comes close to the way people might use personal digital assistants.

If the marketing types can just restrain themselves, they can still make a compelling argument.

Desperate for anything resembling a big hit, the computer industry will be tempted to try to push these products down customers' throats. That won't fly. There has to be a need, real or perceived. If the marketing types can just restrain themselves, they can still make a convincing pitch to people employed in fields like sales and health care, where mobility and on-the-fly note-taking define the work.

But before millions of us start dumping our PDAs for tablet computers, a few things still need to happen:

• The handwriting recognition has to get a lot better. I can't depend on a system that periodically barfs because I failed Ms. Milchman's second-grade handwriting lessons.

• Get the price under $1,500. How much is it worth to you to be able to take notes, read documents, browse the Web, and send and receive e-mail? Early adopters always pay top dollar. That's fine if your company is rolling in dough, but these are different times and businesses are closely watching their pennies. Double ditto for me.

• Reduce the total weight to about 1.5 pounds. The improvement is marked, but there's room to go. If I want to get a workout, I'll do arm curls at the gym.

The computing model in which people are essentially chained to their desks is being overtaken by a future world of independent devices that operate with each other.

Those are the particular nits I wanted to pick. But this wasn't meant to be a slow-motion windup to malign this as the second coming of the Apple Newton.

The encouraging news is that the designers are going in the right direction. The computing model in which people are essentially chained to their desks is being overtaken by a future world of independent devices that operate with each other. That's where tablet computers make sense. I may be able to type more rapidly than I can take notes, but the keyboardless notebook metaphor will do just fine in many niches of the business world.

So give 'em an A for ambition but a B- for execution. I like what they're doing, but the technology remains a work in progress. In the meantime, keep your PDAs.