My Pen! He took my pen!

Adding to all the noise about the Apple Tablet, and pretending that I’ve still got some control over my conspicuous consumption.

kithmypen.jpgIt’s Internet Law that every website, no matter what its topic or area of expertise, has to have at least one post about the Apple tablet, and I’ve already done mine. But people keep writing things that keep getting me all worked up about it. And if the rumors are true, I’ve only got two weeks left to pretend that I have enough willpower to make a discriminating purchasing decision.

The latest thing that set me off was Dan Moren’s column on MacWorld speculating on how the tablet would handle text input. In particular:

Stylus – The stylus was a great idea back in the days of the Palm Pilot and the Newton, when everybody still used pens all the time, but we’ve moved on, folks. I mean, have you seen kids’ handwriting these days? Aside from appealing to the hardcore Newton aficionados out there, I doubt that Apple wants to evoke the ghost of that particular device. Not to mention styli are easy to lose. That said, Apple has had a handwriting-recognition technology called Inkwell squirreled away inside OS X since Jaguar, though right now it’s only really useful if you’ve got a graphics tablet or are using OWC’s ModBook. It wouldn’t be impossible for them to have dusted that off and given it an update to today’s technology. Odds: 200 to 1

Moren actually guesses that the stylus is even less likely than voice recognition or no text entry at all.

This kind of thing concerns me. Not so much for text entry, since even on a tiny keypad, I can type much faster than I can write longhand. But the whole appeal of this thing — not just Apple’s version, but every one of these devices back to the Palm Pilot — was the idea of having an infinite notebook. It would keep track of everything I wanted to carry around with me, and be smart enough to keep it all organized. No device designed to be handheld is going to do that. The iPhone is great at keeping phone numbers, reminders, calendar appointments (entered on a desktop computer), web pages, and songs and videos for quick access, but it’s not great at data entry. Have you ever been at a meeting and tried taking notes with the iPhone or even a PDA? Or doing a quick sketch? It’s clearly not designed for it.

newtonpayphone.jpgPeople keep mentioning the Apple Newton in terms of what the new tablet won’t be. And you just have to watch this awesome “Getting Started” video to be reminded how much of the Newton mystique is due to nostalgia; even calling it “ahead of its time” might be a little too generous. The basic premise of a PDA is still valid, and it obviously did wonders for Palm for about a decade, but the notion of exactly what a PDA would do seems shockingly short-sighted in retrospect. That video is clearly a product of the early 90s: from Shoulder Pad Lady and Be-Earringed Goatee Guy sitting at a business meeting around an overhead projector, to the section on how easy it is to send faxes, to the guy struggling to use the Newton two-handed while talking at a pay phone.

Plus the obvious fact that half of the video is devoted to telling you how to use the thing. This isn’t like the Jobs-era how-to videos that Apple puts out, where a yuppie clad in black steps out of a white void to explain multitouch displays. Those are a combination of product branding, extended marketing, and an attempt to make the device as non-threatening as possible to the most technophobic of consumers. (That’s something else that’s made clear by the old Newton video — just how much more success Apple has had by targeting consumers instead of business people). For the majority of people, Apple’s how-tos aren’t strictly necessary. The company is obsessed — even to a fault — with making devices that you can just pick up and start using. The Newton’s big selling point was the handwriting recognition, and the failure of the handwriting recognition is the first thing anybody remembers about the Newton. That doesn’t signal “ahead of its time,” but “not ready for release.”

But the idea behind your basic interaction with the Newton is exactly the kind of thing I still want to see (and buy and use). Every demo I saw of the Newton back in the 90s defined what interacting with a personal computer should be like. You draw a line across the page, and it starts a new document. You scribble through a word and it disappears in a puff of smoke. You write notes and it understands not only the words you’re writing but the context — putting appointments into your calendar, phone numbers into your address book, sketches into a personal folder. (I’m not sure if that last part was possible or even conceived of back during the Newton days, or if it’s a more modern variation. Still, the demos made me believe that that was what was happening). You interacted with a page but weren’t limited to the page. It captured everything.

Plus I’d like to be able to draw on it, which requires a stylus. I’ve tried Autodesk SketchBook for the iPhone, and it’s about as good as a drawing program can get for a mobile phone, which is to say not very. Sure, if you already good at what you’re doing, you can probably get good results. If you’re a normal human with limited motor skills, then it’s frustrating. Because it’s not drawing, it’s finger painting.

And all this is leading me to suspect that the tablet won’t be about input at all. Apple’s had the bulk of its success not just by targeting the consumer market, but by targeting the consumer media market. The iPhone was originally described as three devices in one, but it’s really become one and a half: a communication device with a media player. (Or if you’re like me and never get or make phone calls, it’s reversed: a personal media player that can occasionally send text messages). All of the speculation about the tablet that I’ve seen seems to be gravitating towards its being a portable media player more than a personal computer — the talk is about how it’ll compete with the Kindle but add color and let you watch videos and revolutionize the newspaper, magazine, and/or comic book industry and even redefine page-based multimedia.

Which is all stuff you can do with a tablet PC. People complained about the iPhone being nothing but hype, because their existing cell phones could do everything the iPhone did. And the new smartphones coming out prove that there’s nothing inherently magical about the technology. But that’s missing the point: what was revolutionary about the iPhone wasn’t just the technology but the way the technology was used. The entire thing was designed with a purpose in mind and a specific interface in mind. The whole UI was designed around finger presses on a small screen, and all the functions from making phone calls to listening to music were designed to work in conjunction with each other (more or less). The reason things like the HP Slate won’t have the same mystique as the iPhone is because they take existing software and shoehorn it into a new form factor, instead of treating the whole thing as a single, unified device. All the new tablets coming out of CES aren’t ever going to be as big a deal as whatever Apple’s got planned, simply because they don’t take the same approach to their releases as Apple does. (A hybrid laptop/tablet running two separate OSes seems like a particularly goofy idea).

There’s no reason to believe that Apple wouldn’t do a fine job delivering another glorified ebook reader or “larger iPod touch,” or that it wouldn’t be every bit as polished as the iPhone and iPod Touch and the new iMac. I’d probably get one and use it and like it, and may even start reading again. But it wouldn’t be the “infinite notebook” I’m looking for.

The Microsoft Courier tablet — if it actually exists and ever comes out — could be just that. Looking at their demo video, I think that’s about 90% of what I want, minus all the shoes. They even use the term “infinite journal.” But there’s little indication of how long it’d be before something like that could get released, or how feasible the concept videos even are in the first place (I’m still highly skeptical about being able to drag things across two separate physical screens with a finger, for instance). And the whole thing, even in concept form, feels vaguely Microsoft-ish. Everything feels somewhat disjointed, and as if there’s more attention to slickness than usability. Even though I’m an admitted whore for all things Apple, I’ll more than gladly acknowledge when Microsoft gets stuff right: Windows Media Center blows away anything available for the Mac, and even the Zune appeals to me a lot more aesthetically than any of the iPod/iPhone variations. But nothing from Microsoft ever has that feeling of being a Grand Unified Vision; it all seems designed by committee, and the seams become more and more apparent the more you use it.

At least the Microsoft version would be guaranteed to have a better version of Solitaire. But at this point I’m thinking the device I really want to get will only ever exist in concept videos and in science fiction.