Tablets Need Pens

Apple Newton

Usually I quite like Engadget, but I just read a post over there that I thought was pretty stupid.  It was covering a new tablet computer from Fujitsu… here’s what they had to say:

Unless you’re eagerly anticipating your IT department handing one of these to you, something tells us the Stylistic Q550 isn’t the tablet you’re looking for. Why’s that? Everything about the experience screams “corporate,” starting with our time at Fujitsu’s booth earlier today where business dealings to deploy the tablet in some corporate environment were literally happening before our very eyes. There was only one unit in the vicinity — and the suits were relentless in trying to get their paws on it — but we spent just long enough with it to figure out that there are far, far better-suited consumer options out there; as far as we can tell, that’s exactly how Fujitsu wants it. That opinion was further reinforced by the presence of a smart card reader on the side (for secure logins), a fingerprint scanner on back, and old-school pen input, which Fujitsu tells us that legacy tablet users (read: medical personnel and field data entry folks) still want. It can take fingers, too, but we felt like the quality of the display is compromised a bit for the dual-mode support. Interestingly, there’s no place to store the pen in the tablet anyway; you’ll need the accessory case for that.

The company is talking about its custom Windows 7 skin as a key differentiator. The build they had on the demo unit was a little buggy, but at any rate, we came away with the impression that it’s basically just a finger-friendly view to launch apps; fortunately, the full Windows experience — which is just as non-touch-optimized as ever — is just a tap away. We were hoping the Oak Trail guts would keep everything snappy, but the pre-release code here was actually lagging pretty badly as we navigated from screen to screen. Don’t get us wrong: we’re sure these are precisely the specs that some enterprise customers are looking for… but as an individual, gadget-loving, tablet-wanting human being, we’re pretty sure they aren’t the specs that you’re looking for.

Now despite the little disclaimer at the end, personally I (and seemingly most of the commenters on that thread) think that Engadget have missed the point there completely.  Yes the iPad and the millions of forthcoming consumer Android tablets are fine devices, but they have a sweet-spot in their use.   In my opinion that is for the consumption of information whether that be email, the web, documents, videos or whatever.  When you extend that use to creating and modifying documents you soon start to come across their limitations.

The idea that pen input is somehow ‘legacy’ is pretty stupid.  Touch input is great for UI interaction and navigation, but if you need to type more than a brief email or draw/illustrate something it isn’t really ideal.  Given the tablets typical A4 pad form factor pen input would seem to be the natural alternative.  This was the approach taken by Palm, Apple and Microsoft in the past with the Palm Pilot, Newton and Windows Mobile platforms, and one that MS has continued with in Windows XP, Vista and 7 based tablets.

Over the years I’ve owned all the above and currently have a Lenovo Win7 touch enabled tablet for my day-today work computer.  If you’re looking through a presentation or browsing then touch works well, but having a pen lets you take proper notes, draw diagrams or mind maps.  If your OS is smart enough it’ll have decent handwriting recognition to transcribe your notes for you too.  My personal experience with Vista and 7 has been pretty good, it doesn’t make to many more mistakes than I would when typing.

The fact is that Pen input is useful, and not just for Doctors or ‘field entry folk’ (though Motion have done very well on servicing just those markets for some time).  Tablets are worse off for not having pen input available, indeed the burgeoning market for capitative pens that will work with the iPad would seem to support that idea.  It wouldn’t surprise me one little bit if Apples iPad 2 that they’ll be talking about tomorrow had a sneaky sylus.

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