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Summary:

A recent post on TechChrunch by John Biggs got the attention of some Tablet PC enthusiasts: “A laptop is an interactive tool. An ebook, even if it’s just aglorified, dual screen laptop, is a reading tool. That is why tabletPCs never took off in the mainstream: […]

Computers_input_205660A recent post on TechChrunch by John Biggs got the attention of some Tablet PC enthusiasts:

“A laptop is an interactive tool. An ebook, even if it’s just aglorified, dual screen laptop, is a reading tool. That is why tabletPCs never took off in the mainstream: people don’t know what to do witha form factor that is clearly not a laptop yet is also clearly apowerful computer. There is no way to connect the act of “scratchingout words on a tablet” to processing worksheets in a spreadsheet. Whydoesn’t the iPhone have handwriting recognition? Because it’s ahorrible way to talk to a computer, even now.”

John was talking about the book form OLPC 2 that forgoes a physical keyboard with a dual-screen format but his comments about the Tablet PC gives one pause to consider the technology of handwriting recognition since that’s the tech behind the interface that John mentions.  I’ve given his comments a lot of thought and spent some time analyzing how I use my Tablet PCs and surprisingly I find myself agreeing with John’s comments for the most part.

To give this some adequate consideration we have to take a look at the handwriting recognition that is part of the Tablet PC today.  This means we look at Vista and the reco bits integrated in the OS so we get a feel for how good it is or isn’t.  I have been using Tablet PCs for a very long time and I have to tell you that the reco ability in Vista is outstanding.  My handwriting is, shall we say, less than good and it never ceases to amaze me how accurately the recognition engine in Vista understands what I write and converts it to text.  It is almost scary at times for me to see how well my ink has been interpreted when I can’t easily read it myself.  The advancements and improvements have been continual and impressive and the current technology is very good indeed.  So does this mean that John Biggs is wrong and that handwriting recognition is actually a good way to talk to a computer?

I am afraid not, at least in my opinion. Now before having a knee-jerk reaction to this listen to me for a bit.  The reason I say this is because I have analyzed the way I use my Tablet PCs and that paints a picture that is hard to ignore.  As good as the recognition is today I find that if I need to input more than a couple of sentences I will reach for the keyboard.  Part of this is because I type faster than I ink and part of this is because of the process itself.  When I am writing I like to input the text without thinking about the process and get on with the input.  Even with a high level of accuracy in handwriting recognition  there are still errors that have to be manually corrected before getting too far along.  Many people no doubt find this correction process to be one that derails the process, forcing one to stop the writing and fix what has already been written.  Even though recognition can have a greater than 98% accuracy, that still means that for longer passages several corrections will have to be made.  I find this to be totally obstructive to the writing process and I’m sure others would agree with that.

Now I don’t type perfectly with a keyboard either, but the errors are different than the errors you get with recognition failure.  When I mistype something it usually means I have a word that is misspelled and spell checkers can catch and fix it.  Not so with recognition errors and why you have to correct them immediately when you get them.  Reco errors result in giving you a different word than you wrote but a real word that won’t be flagged by spell checkers.  That means if you don’t correct it immediately you run the risk of having a strange word in the middle of your text, something that can make you look pretty foolish at times.  It is the primary reason that for text entry of any length I reach for the keyboard and not the pen and I don’t think I am unusual in that regard.

The Tablet PC has many other great uses that I exploit all the time, pen control and input is great under many circumstances but this article is focussed strictly on text entry as were Biggs’ comments.  I realize that those who are not good typists or who work in environments that don’t allow an arrangement for using a keyboard will feel quite differently than I and prefer pen input.  That’s the power of the Tablet PC, especially the convertible form that provides solid inking and keyboarding.  It’s the choice that makes it work so well for many.  But for the most part it is not hard to understand why Tablets have not cracked the mainstream market because most folks exchanged the pen for the keyboard long ago and that’s not going to change.  As cool as text entry is using the pen it is not practical for many for the reasons I’ve detailed and that is the root problem with Tablet acceptance.

  1. James, as usual, you hit the nail on the head, or is it stylus?… ;-)

    Good points about Tablet usage….agree with your assessment, that reco is great but still not yet good enough to make one just naturally choose it over keyboard if you have both options avaiable.

    Hopefully, one day this will change, and either the situation will reverse or least one will need to think which mode is best for what I’m going to do….

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  2. I agree, notetaking with a tablet pc can become
    cumbersome at best. While the tablet form factor is a nice way to interact
    with the screen, I also don’t see it as a universally necessary entity.

    This is why I don’t understand why tabletPcs are not more heavily marketed towards professional artists, animators, and graphic designers, where pen input is not only more suitable, but is by and large preferred. Most
    will use a typical wacom tablet because of its lower price than a cintiq, but in most cases a cintiq would be a substantially better tool. I believe tablet pcs can bridge this gap, but there are not enough tablet pcs with dedicated graphics and large enough screens to serve as a primary computer for these applications.

    My two cents.

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  3. Agree with your observations James. If I have to write more than a couple of words on the tablet, I reach for the keyboard.

    Primarily use the device for reading PDFs.

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  4. Gavin Miller Monday, May 26, 2008

    I do ink meeting notes and convert to text later. Also, in slate mode I prefer Vista’s handwriting recognition to the on screen keyboard for entering web addresses and similar. That’s about the limit of it and typing is always the preferred option for me.

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  5. I think handwriting recognition is, at best, a secondary use for a tablet. The inking and pen are more of a flexibility addition. That is, tablet’s are all about new ways to interact with your computer: drawing, scribbling, taking notes are all possible with the tablet but are barely possible on a traditional laptop. This is especially true of presentations (as in education). Try interacting with a group during your PPT presentation when they ask questions–if you don’t have the exact slide, you’ll be doing lots of explaining. I, myself, get great use out of all the input forms, though I haven’t touched a mouse in about 2 years.

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  6. Doug Carmichael Monday, May 26, 2008

    Taking notes in seminars where graphics are important, the ability to sketch is wonderful. the scrolling infinitely long page is terrific.

    hand writen and drawn semimnar notes in a tab make finding easy. Compared to paper, which is usually lost after a month..

    Also for writing poetry in the semi darkness, the slate mode is wonderful.

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  7. Isn’t the problem that Joe Public (and even some tech jounrnos) think “Handwriting recognition” means writing stuff and turning it into text. Which is very niche and certainly not something I would consider, I just reach for the keyboard.

    However what tablet fans have always known is that SEARCHING handwritten text is what matters for most people not CONVERTING. HR is what powers OneNote for inkers. And doing it offline is what EverNote are promoting too. Take a snapshot of some written text and we will convert it for you. HR for the masses.

    However….why was inking on the Apple Newton so much fun ? Sure, the recognition was not very good (compared to Vista) but as an experience it is still very hard to beat. Is it because of the usage, you were not trying to get it to write a thesis, but to simply remember to “Call Betty at 7″ ?

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  8. Ink is great when you are writing whilst sat on the sofa as I am now. I have hardly used in my notebook (the paper sort) for the last 3 years. I do all my notes in ink in MindManager on a TC4400 or previously a TC1100. It’s a pity Mindjet have not developed their ink to text conversion to match the quality of Vista.

    I have tried pen flicks and Vista Ink to Text in mouse mode but iris not as fluid as ink mode.

    Ink may be slower than typing but that sometimes improves my writing.

    ArtRage is a great painting package for Tablet PC.

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  9. As with the comments above, I agree with everything you’ve said James. One other thing that I think stops me from taking a tablet into meetings (as opposed to a pen and paper) is the fact that the PC itself will slow me down. Conversations move swiftly in most meetings (especially impromptu ones) and I can’t really afford to wait for my tablet to wake up or for One Note to load with the risk that something might freeze or slow me down in some other way. If tablets could include a 100% reliable instant-on capability and software was 110% reliable I would love to take notes on a tablet but we’re not quite there yet.

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  10. Good points all and I should reiterate that I’m not talking here about the usefulness of inking in general. I ink notes for hours every day and wouldn’t trade that for the world. No, I’m talking about handwriting recognition which by definition is the conversion of ink to digital text.

    Inking notes works so well for me because I NEVER convert them to text because the searching is so good. There’s just no need to convert ink to text most of the time.

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