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: 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.