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Can Windows Tablet PCs Make a Comeback?

Windows Tablets vs. the iPad and thoughts on the stylus


Toshiba Portege M200

Toshiba Portege M200


The tablet is definitely the hottest personal computing device these days, and when we say "tablet," many of us think "iPad", though there are interesting Android tablets available or upcoming as well. Many of us, though, forget (or perhaps are not old enough to remember) the earlier tablet era two decades ago, when Microsoft introduced Windows for Pen Computing, and then the later tablet revival when pen-based “tablet PCs” from IBM, Toshiba, Fujitsu, and others were introduced. So why did the tablet PC fail to gain mass adoption (or, at least, capture the imaginations of masses) the way the iPad seems to have done? And, more importantly, is there a place for Windows tablets – or, at least, the stylus – in today’s tablet renaissance?

Who Uses Windows Tablet PCs Today

Windows tablet PCs are still around, of course. They find their way into the hands of students, engineers, architects, field workers, and professional artists in particular. Despite Steve Jobs’ declaration that a stylus is a sign of failure in a device, there’s a very real need and use for the stylus among these groups.

You can paint a masterpiece with a stylus on a tablet PC much more easily than you can via touch on the iPad (if you were an artist, would you prefer to fingerpaint or use a brush?). There are even uses for non-specialists: for taking notes, nothing is more intuitive or natural than using something that feels like a pen. OneNote, that unsung hero of digital organization and note-taking, is incredible on tablet PCs (but not that great on the iPad, to be honest); I’ve owned several tablets in the last ten years – and OneNote is one of the main reasons why.

Early Tablet PCs Failures

Despite these advantages (and Bill Gates’ prediction to CNN in 2001 that tablet PCs would be the most popular computing platform by 2006), tablet PCs simply didn’t become household products. Blame it on immature technology, early handwriting recognition’s inaccuracy, the high premium active digitizers require, lack of tablet-specific applications, or a host of other business reasons. A decade ago, maybe we just weren’t ready.

Windows Tablet PCs vs. Apple's iPad

Newer tablet PCs, though, have both digital inking and multi-touch capabilities, and Windows 7 has the best tablet and handwriting support of any Microsoft OS yet … but many industry experts are still quick to dismiss the possibility of broad success for Win7 tablets in the face of the newer generation of tablets with mobile operating systems. Today’s consumer tablets are lighter, sleeker, have access to thousands of apps and, critically, are priced appropriately for secondary computing devices.

Love or hate the iPad, even Gates admits Apple did a good job. You almost think: maybe Apple’s one-size-fit-all approach is better for quality control and digital inking really is irrelevant to consumers (or, to quote Jobs at an iPhone keynote according to Gizmodo, “Yuck. Nobody wants a stylus”)… but then, styluses for iPhone and iPad users are being bought and sold (or made at home) every day and handwriting apps downloaded and installed regularly -- Penultimate for iPad has over two thousand glowing reviews. (A glowing review of the Nomad Brush stylus for the iPad by About's Graphics Software Guide, was one of the main reasons I bought an iPad.)

The Perfect Tablet?

So I think really that somewhere between the overdoing-it-ness of Windows-based tablet PCs and the limited purpose of today’s mobile tablets lies the perfect tablet – one that’s both powerful and refined, encourages easy consumption and more intuitive input or creation.

Mix in some marketing “magic” and more affordable pricing, and the tablet really could be that revolutionary device we’ve been looking forward to.

After all, it’s not hard to imagine the wild success Apple would have if it introduced a tablet that ran Mac OS X and had both stylus and touch support -- in fact, many wishful thinkers already had that dream when rumors of the iPad first circulated. Though that dream’s been dashed by Jobs’ obvious disdain for the stylus, there is hope for Windows tablets to move beyond just niche adoption. At least, that’s what those of us who believe in the might of the (digital) pen would like.

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