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Reflecting on the tablet PC

February 2, 2010

Apple’s announcement of the iPad last week has me thinking a bit about Microsoft’s Tablet PC. I still have a soft spot for Microsoft’s original tablet vision, and I still fondly remember the HP tc1100 I used for awhile when I was still a professor at Georgia Tech (although the thing was admittedly woefully underpowered even when new).

Given that Microsoft’s Tablet PC notion dates back to 2001, why is Apple the one generating so much buzz around tablets right now? I think a large part of the reason is that, despite Microsoft paying tablets lip service and dedicating some resources to it, they never really seemed to take the platform that seriously. Rather than a full-fledged tablet effort, their tablet work always seemed like an afterthought to the Windows operating system. It was a feature, not a platform with its own particular interaction paradigm. The stylus was really just a replacement for the use of the mouse and keyboard. The bright side was that Windows apps worked with Microsoft’s tablets “out of the box”, without any additional effort by developers. But that was arguably the downside as well: since developers didn’t have to modify their applications to work on tablets, they didn’t bother to. All apps worked on tablets, but none of them worked particularly well on tablets or really took advantage of their strengths (with a few notable exceptions, like Alias’ Sketchbook Pro, which I thought was a great example of an application designed to take advantage of a tablet’s capabilities).

So despite the kvetching around Apple’s iPad going with the iPhone OS rather than OS X, it’s arguably an advantage because developers won’t be able to get away with minimal modifications to desktop OS X applications that won’t really leverage the tablet platform. Instead they’ll try to get away with minimal modification to iPhone applications, but at least those are already designed around touch interaction.

Of course, only time will tell if Apple made the right choice with the iPad. But unfortunately after 9 or so years the evidence certainly suggests that Microsoft made some poor choices its tablet.

From → Hardware, Mobile, Musings

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