Posted by: wiltjk | October 25, 2010

Tablet/Pad Devices – Past, Present, & Future

My Past

For me, it all began with the Etch-a-Sketch:
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A portable device that channeled creativity. It came out the year I was born and has been a staple in both my kid’s and my childhoods.

From an IT perspective, it hit again when Microsoft introduced their rendition of the Tablet PC. This pen based user experience made the PC personal once again as it produced a more intimate interaction between human and machine.

The Compaq TC1000 slate tablet was my first experience back in 2003.
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Microsoft did their homework and provided both a supportive OS with decent handwriting recognition and, over the next few years, applications like OneNote and InfoPath with tablet integration features that made application development on this platform a breeze.

Since its introduction, I have been privileged to develop tablet solutions for both the medical and technology industries with great ease. Those who know me, also know that I have scarcely used a keyboard since that time, becoming a complete pen-adopter.

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Office 2007 was the peak of Tablet PC awareness with some great product integrations including OneNote, my most used application to date. The design of the ribbon and placement of user interface components just worked perfect with a pen enabled device. InfoPath made it possible to develop pen aware and freehand drawing based applications without code! Creating solutions around the slate tablet profile was actually exciting and proved to make the platform a contender for many industries.

In meetings, the slate tablet simply made sense. It was unintimidating and never created the barrier that a laptop does when sitting between individuals. My Motion Computing tablet became my new right arm making travel a breeze as the narrow space between airline seats never was a problem because of its size and profile.

Having recognized the beauty of the tablet PC slate platform, I found it amusing during various engagements when the very people who complained it lacked a keyboard were the same ones who pushed back on early PCs because they were two-finger typists who were more frustrated with the keyboard stating, "if it only worked like a pen and pad of paper, I could use it more…"

Convertible Tabletsthe beginning of the end
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Don’t interpret this incorrectly. I love my Lenovo X200 tablet because it is fast, powerful, and very durable. BUT, the whole concept of a convertible tablet PC is a most unfortunate compromise to accommodate a user community who has no business using tablet PCs in the first place. The weight/form factor in a convertible greatly diminishes its value. They are 3 times heavier, thicker, and much more bulky than their slate alternatives. Battery life is dismal at best making it necessary to carry your power cord and endlessly hunt for one of the 5 rare power outlets available at most airports. The light weight/easy to handle form factor of a slate is what made the tablet more personal in the first place. Unfortunately, in order to get the faster processors and larger memory configurations, a convertible is required.

The convertible tablet is simply an abomination created by manufacturers who should not have listened to their focus groups who said "if it only had a keyboard, I would buy one…" because guess what, they didn’t!

The Evolution of the UX…
When Vista came along, minor, but substantial improvements to the overall user experience ensued. During development of Vista and well into Windows 7, however, it seemed that this tablet platform was becoming an after-thought.

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Vista did come out with a new Tablet Input Panel (TIP) interface that in some ways was a major improvement, but in other ways failed by removing its write-anywhere feature. Third party Evernote emerged as they produced their Ritescript ritePen product filling that gap with an excellent replacement offering.

With innovation came the need for increased power and resources. At this time I learned how weak slate tablet PCs were in order to extend battery life. The system of TIP services became increasingly CPU intensive causing the tablet to lock-up/fail under duress when the InputPersonalization service ran its learning retention cycle.

Because of the performance issues raised with the new TIP system, I researched alternatives including ritePen and ShapeWriter third-party handwriting recognition which could be tuned to stretch the CPU utilization to nearly half what the TIP required. They also opened the door to alternative means of interfacing with the tablet.

A New Paradigm for Tablet Input…
Years prior to the debut of the Tablet PC, Dr. Shumin Zhai invented Shorthand-Aided Rapid Keyboarding (SHARK) using the Alphabetically Tuned and Optimized Mobile Interface Keyboard (ATOMIK ) at the IBM Almaden Research Center. I had experimented with early versions of SHARK and found it to be a serious paradigm shift from traditional input, but in a very positive way. Since its earliest renditions, SHARK has now become a business of its own known as ShapeWriter and is now my preferred means of interfacing with any tablet device.

Using Actual Windows Manager, I found I could actively control the display and footprint of ShapeWriter to maintain a transparent display and automatically shrink into a rolled-up title bar when inactive to support better use of screen real estate.
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The transparency aspect greatly improves the user experience as our minds tend to work better when we see larger context surrounding the area in which we are writing.

[Technical Note: ShapeWriter has since been purchased by Nuance who has currently suspended downloading and purchases.]

A Solution for the Increasing Need for Power…
As mentioned earlier, slate tablets are often built on weaker hardware configurations to keep them light and to preserve battery life. At some point, you realize that no matter how much you like the slate tablet platform, it simply is not powerful enough for your serious work. Not wanting to give up on the slate tablet form factor, I developed the following scenario (which I continue to use today) to extend the use of slate tablets in the enterprise where their stand alone power is insufficient.

My approach has been, utilize the native slate tablet PC for remote/off-site information/requirements gathering, and then remotely connect via VNC/RDP to a more powerful enterprise computer for more intense activities:
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This mode of utilization provides the personal user experience with all the power needed for any heavy-hitter activity. The only drawback to this, however, is that many of Microsoft’s products disable their tablet-aware features when the application is not running on a tablet. This is unfortunate as other third party apps do not, providing the exact same functionality when hosted by a tablet, or hosted on a desktop/laptop and connected with a tablet (e.g., IE loses many features like hand-panning when not hosted on a tablet where the Firefox and Chrome Grab and Drag add-ins always work).

My Present

This takes us to our current stage of evolution. Today’s convertible tablets weigh in the 4-6 lb range and even under Windows 7 sustain a measly 2 hour actual battery life. They are bulky and no longer offer any real advantage over a laptop.

Windows 7 and Office 2010 have become increasingly less tablet unfriendly. The Windows 7 TIP recognition has worsened since Vista and Office 2010 Visio (a drawing application!) not only does not work well with the TIP, it doesn’t even work with pen-flick gestures anymore.

My world as a tablet user was fast coming to an end until…

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The Apple iPad, or as I call it, a portable Microsoft Surface.

This is not going to be a debate of one vendor over another, it’s about tablets. I have not touched an Apple product since I developed on the very first Macs, so I’m coming from a whole different perspective.

In an industry that typically sells less than two million tablet PCs annually (collectively – all vendors combined), Apple’s iPad has started to sell over that many units per month. I would be remiss to ignore this impact on the tablet industry.

The user experience on the iPad is snappy, engaging, and very responsive. For PC users, think of it as a Silverlight UI to everything. I’m more pleased to task-switch than multi-task because it, too, is faster and less taxing on weaker hardware. Simply put, the iPad is a game changer because it gets back to the original roots from which Microsoft started. The iPad is a personal user experience in an appropriately sized 1.5 lb form factor with a battery life that exceeds 10 hours.

This means you can go an entire day without a power cord. That is a big deal. And, it does it for 1/3 the cost! This from Apple where compared to my son’s single MacBook Pro, I was able to purchase my daughter two Dell laptops over her 5 years in college and still be $100 cheaper!

Because of its weight and battery life, I use my iPad to remote connect to my more powerful Windows 7 PC using iTap VNC & RDP and Jump Desktop apps:

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This actually provides a far richer Windows tablet user experience than my previous tablets can, not only from the real portability it sustains, but also in its screen resolution. Viewing my remotely connected PC with 1400×1050 resolution scaled to the iPad’s 1024×768 native screen is actually better than my laptop’s 1280×800 native screen.

The iPad, however, does have its own shortcomings. The largest is that iPad keyboard is opaque with no transparency option and Apple has not opened their keyboard API so that ShapeWriter can be used as a replacement (this would be a seriously smart move for them).

But as far as devices go, I finally have one that can sustain a long travel time and go on the road for an entire day without the necessity to carry along every form of cord for power and connectivity. I can actually go into an airport and not hunt for a bench by a power outlet! Freedom!

The iPad is not about a vendor’s operating system, per se. It is about a device that enables you to readily access those systems you will always be accessing in a manner that enhances your user experience and mobility. For me, it is the window into my preferred Windows world for enterprise productivity. The Apple Works apps will never replace my rich Office apps which I will continue to use to produce 99% of my content. The iPad device, however, is my preferred entry point to accessing those apps on my PC.

Microsoft actually is a winner here (though they may not as of yet recognize it). Devices used to access their systems are promoting the effectiveness of the many productivity applications they produce.

Android based tablet devices are now emerging with Swype technology which has some seriously promising characteristics. I look forward to these alternatives as they mature. This level of competition may be what was missing in previous tablet/pad iterations to drive accelerated growth through competitive innovations.

Our Future

The device industry is to PCs today what PCs once were to mainframes. The writing is on the wall, and the PC as we know it today has a limited life ahead of it. Those who adopt and embellish on the device movement will have the jump on those who will propose to hold onto the PC platform indefinitely.

The cloud is my next laptop. Did you get that? The cloud is my next laptop. This means that before I fork over and purchase a new laptop to which I connect from my more portable tablet device, I will sooner lease this capability from the cloud where it can replicate and move wherever it needs to keep costs and my carbon footprint to a minimum.

I have already proven that I can do everything remotely on my existing PCs from my iPad, it’s not a far move to simply do it on a cloud virtual server instead.

These offerings are beginning to emerge in the form of Desktop as a Service (DaaS) from providers such as molten.

The real future of tablet devices…
Connecting to a virtualized PC is just a step to that which is even more exciting to me, the future cloud services like Microsoft Office 365.

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There is a video on their site where they state "Office 365 delivers our products the way we intended them to be delivered." This leads me to believe that Microsoft is going to reclaim the presentation of their products by either stricter guidance on the hardware in which it runs (like they do with Windows Phone 7) or by making it accessible to any device like Office 365 through the browser with a richer HTML 5 based user experience.

Bill Gate’s dream of tablets is slowly coming to fruition – be it in a completely different fulfillment model than what he originally thought when he introduced the first tablet PC for the enterprise. One might look at his original idea as the right solution at the wrong time, but I would disagree. If he never introduced his initial versions, we would never have the great devices emerging today. If Apple could have gone from the Newton to the iPad, they would have; they needed 7-8 years of Microsoft tablets to warm the market to that in which they now find success!

If I were to fault Microsoft for anything, it would be that it too often listens to the focus group research and sometimes not enough to the brilliant innovative minds inside its walls. Bill’s original tablet idea is what Apple is seeing great success with, not the renditions generated by customer feedback.

You cannot use an iPad app without some form of connectivity as they rely on access to some form of cloud service whether it be a map, recipe, or weather app. The future of tablet devices will likewise be dependent on cloud services from Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and others. The tablet device itself will become a loss leader for cloud vendors to grasp market share for the services they offer and the real solutions will be found in those cloud services and the flashy presentations they provide to consumers on whatever devices are out there as they provide a tangible, physical connection to that nebulous virtual world known as the cloud.

I am genuinely stoked about this future!

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