The Message of the Tablet Medium

…So here’s some homework for the mighty tablet armada: sell me on the tablet platform…Given all that, convince me. Sell it to me. Design me a suitable demo. Explain to me exactly why I shouldn’t go and get some cute little touch-screen sub-notebook, a ThinkPad with 7+ hour battery life, or a full-featured Media Center notebook with booming speakers and a gorgeous screen. Challenges [Peter on Tech]

The last thing that you should do when someone says “Convince me of X” is start talking. “Convince me of X” means “My skepticism of X has increased to the point where my emotions are telling me Not X.” And so when someone says “Convince me…” what you should really do is listen.

I will now ignore what I just said.

The thing about the Tablet PC is that The Medium Is The Message. The Tablet PC will only succeed when software developers:

·       See the Tablet PC as a Medium separate from a Laptop; and

·       Understand the the change of scale or pace or pattern” that [the Tablet] “introduces into human affairs.”

·       Address that message in software

Clearly, the use of the pen coupled with the disuse of the keyboard is the most obvious change to pattern, but it’s become fashionable to ignore that since so there’s so little software that engages that message. So there’s lots of discussion about “mobility,” where the Tablet PC’s “message” is that “It’s fully functional even when cradled in the crook of your left arm.” But the Tablet PC’s “mobility” message is inconsistent, since most still have indoor screens and limited battery life, so it’s mobility message is “It’s fully functional when cradled in the crook of your left arm when you’re in a corridor of your workplace,” which is, not surprisingly, exactly what’s conjured up by the “Corridor warrior” persona which was the most-used reference for whom the Tablet PC would be targeted (the medium is the message!).

For me, mobility means outdoor screens, long battery life, instant-on, and rugged enough to be carried in a backpack on a hike or, ideally, used on a diveboat. If I had that, I could do location-aware field guides on the Tablet PC, which you can’t do with a laptop (the “crook of the left-arm” thing is important to field guides).

Another part of the message of the Tablet PC that we fans ignore is that it’s not nearly as non-disruptive as a notepad. I wish it were, but it ain’t. Pulling out a Tablet PC to take notes is insanely disruptive. Once it’s down on the surface and you start writing, it’s more discrete for note-taking than a laptop, but when you turn it on or take it out of the pack, fuhgeddaboutit. So part of the pattern of using a Tablet PC in meetings for me is firing up OneNote, putting the machine in standby, walking in with the Tablet in my hand and getting it down on the table and in note-taking mode as quickly as possible. It’s still disruptive.

Going back to the fundamentals, the disuse of the keyboard is as much a part of the Tablet PC medium as the use of the pen. I’ve had the experience of having both a Tablet and a traditional laptop in front of me in a technical seminar (actually, a slate and a convertible, but the experience was the same). Let me tell you: fantastic experience. Longer thoughts and code at the speed of typing (technical seminar: keyboard clicks acceptable), drawings, connections, short notes with the stylus. It was such a good experience that I could well imagine an external digitizer attached to a keyboarded laptop running Tablet XP as the best solution for the types of meetings I most often have. That would be a better solution than an external keyboard attached to a Tablet, because for reading a vertical screen is better, while for writing / drawing, a horizontal surface is needed. It’s difficult to use the stylus on a convertible in laptop mode, it’s difficult to use the screen on a slate lying flat.

Having said all this, why do I love the Tablet PC medium? Because I adore the stylus’ direct manipulation, gestures, and fast 2D pointing. Those, to me, are the parts of the Tablet PC message that are unappreciated in all software and are only beginning to be addressed in some art programs and OneNote. When I think of what I’d love to be able to create / do with a  Tablet PC, it generally involves these things. For instance, I’m convinced that there’s a broad class of outlining-type facilities that can be created in 2D space (a virtual corkboard; code refactoring; etc.). Or, association by pointing —  this, not that; this, and that; this, in contrast to that – these are things we do on notepads and whiteboards with a line, but what if that line were semantically meaningful? And no physical space can be folded, stretched, duplicated, and restructured the way that computer coordinates can be.

So to me, when I think of the Tablet PC, I think of this product that provides me with everything that the laptop does (in convertible mode) and has an entirely new category of possible software that is unrealized. As an end-user, I can understand why that’s frustrating, but as a developer, it’s what I live for.