By September 24, 2009

Tablet wars – history and future

So what’s up with that tablets? Do you need one? Read it from somebody who owned already 4 Tablet PCs…

On October 22, 2009 Microsoft is launching Windows 7 operating system that not only has built-in Tablet PC features (no biggy here: already Windows Vista had them) but also one more thing: built-in multitouch, so many new notebooks and netbooks will be coming in next few weeks with multitouch support.

Furthermore both Apple and Microsoft are working on their own tablet-only devices, i.e. not general purpose notebooks that can be turned to tablets, but devices specifically designed to be tablet. Apple’s tablet is rumored to launch in first quarter of 2010 and while it is unknown when Microsoft will launch tablet, you can get many netbooks and notebooks with tablet features, multitouch and powered by Windows 7 – yet in this year (we recommend however waiting till November 2009 at least, to get Windows 7 pre-installed).

Info about Microsoft’s “Courier” tablet (that has 2 touch screens and full digitizer pen support!) has leaked and it shows the future of tablets in this video:

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So let’s take a look at some history. As much as Apple fanboys would like to think that Apple has invented everything, it was Microsoft that was pioneer in tablets for years.

First attempt of Microsoft at tablets was “Mira” or a Windows CE powered home tablet, that however flopped because it could not run regular Windows programs and didn’t offer much in third party programs too, although there were plenty of Windows CE programs at online stores available – it was not as much as for Windows Mobile or Palm for example.

Then Microsoft has released “Windows XP Tablet PC Edition” that was a Windows XP Professional with Tablet PC features on top of it. This was in 2002. At time the first tablets were from Fujitsu and Acer and were using digitizer pen – as the first tablet devices, but no touchscreen functionality.

Funnily enough, despite the fact that Bill Gates is supposed to be proponent of tablets (he was showing them on various TV interviews) the Microsoft’s tablet functionality never was supporting left handed people (and Bill Gates is left-handed), i.e. scroll bards are always on the right side, which is designed for right-handed people.

It is worth mentioning what is the difference between digitizer pen and stylus. With stylus the display can register only where you put it down, and precision is low. With digitizer pen the display can register (usually) 512 levels of pressure and the precision of drawing/writing/pointing is approximately 1000 times higher than with stylus. Currently most digitizer pens are based on Wacom technology and require no battery as electricity from the display is delivering power to them by the way of induction.

To satisfy needs of both users who would like to use finger for fast navigation and digitizer pen for drawing, manufacturers like Toshiba and Dell were releasing tablets that support both these technologies. It works in this way: when you touch screen with finger, then digitizer pen functionality is not working. When you touch screen with digitizer pen then touch screen functionality is switched off so you can comfortably put you arm on the display without worrying that it will disturb input.

Then came Windows Vista. Despite millions of angry customers Microsoft has earned a lot of money off Vista as many computers had to be preinstalled with it. Vista however was the first OS from Microsoft that had all the tablet functionalities (Windows Journal program, handwriting recognition, gestures support, ink support) built-in into all versions. So no longer separate “Vista Tablet Edition” or so.

In the lifespan of Vista interestingly Dell and HP have released tablet PC notebooks with multitouch support (and Dell’s one supported both pen and multitouch), but since Vista didn’t offer built-in multitouch, it was usable only in a very limited way.

With introduction of Windows 7, that has built-in support for multitouch it will all change! In few weeks we will observe many many announcements of notebooks (both high-end and cheap) and netbooks (cheap!) with built-in multitouch support. Some of them will not have digitizer pen support at all so if you fancy drawing or simply signing you documents electronically and filling you documents electronically, then such devices might be not for you.

If you are fond of netbooks, you might be interested for example in EeePC T91 MT netbook that is coming to the market at the beginning of November 2009. There will be plenty of notebooks and netbooks with Windows 7 and multitouch. Our sweet spot – a netbook that would have both multitouch and digitizer pen is not in sight yet, but for that there will be several notebooks.

So as you can see it is Microsoft that has been leader in tablets for years. And now with that Microsoft Courier tablet (see video above) that features 2 touch screens, book-like design that can be folded, multitouch (note that 2-finger gesture for windows content scrolling!) and digitizer pen (for super-precise handwriting) – Microsoft again proves that it is leader in this area.

However Apple is not sleeping and the rumor has it that Steve Jobs is focusing on an Apple tablet that will probably go on sale in first months of 2010.

It is utterly ironic that Apple was presenting their Mac computers as machines for creative people but yet the only way to have pen input on them, was to buy external tablets (cheap) or tablet displays (very expensive). One company even was (and still is) modding low-end Macbooks into Mac tablets but pricing is atrocious and there is no pen-computing support in Mac OS X as of now. Obviously the virtual keyboard in Snow Leopard has improved and it was designed so that it takes less space (suitable for tablet with SSD disk or small harddrive), but these are just hints, not proofs.

Since Windows 7 will cause, as side effect, big avalanche of tablet-like computers (albeit usable also as notebooks or netbooks), it is obvious that Apple has to respond to it. While Apple failed to respond to netbook revolution, in order to keep high margins on their overpriced notebooks (one can get PC notebook with double the speed for the same price as Macbook + BlueRay for HD video playback for free), it looks like Steve Jobs (make no mistake: Apple = Steve Jobs, without Steve Jobs, Apple is dead meat) decided to go after Mac tablet. It is not clear what it will be, whether it will be called “Macbook touch” or “iTablet”, whether it will be powered by full Mac OS X or some crippled version like the one running in iPhone OS, whether it will run on Intel x86 compatible processor or use ARM-compatible one, but since number of Apple fanboys is big, certainly a lot of them will be sold. However if Apple’s tablet will not support digitizer pen, then it will have no usage for many scenarios (see the list below!) and will not be so appealing as it could be.

Finally, let’s answer the question: do you really need a tablet at all? Here are some usage scenarios that can help you in this decision:

— using tablet in bed, in toilet, or on sofa for comfortable web browsing – here multitouch is enough and digitizer pen is not needed

— using tablet to sign and fill documents, where you can use programs like PDF Annotator from German company Grahl Software. In other words: you can fill and sign documents before (!) printing them or you can not print them at all. In some countries documents filled and signed electronically are legally binding. Note: in this case digitizer pen is necessary.

— drawing and doodling – here also digitizer pen is necessary

— in office environment: Microsoft Office since version 2007 has built-in tablet pc support insofar as you can draw with pen all around documents. If you are working in company where you have meetings for example, you can annotate documents before and during meetings with use of Microsoft Office! Annotations are vector-based so super clear and here also digitizer pen is necessary.

— as replacement for your notebook – since some tablets are much smaller than notebooks, they are much more portable. And if you are poor person who cannot afford business class in airplanes, then space is cramped and with tablet you can work much more efficiently than with notebook or even netbook that simply take more space.

— to take notes at university or at school. Since many lecturers made their slides available beforehand, it is much more usable to take notes on the content of the lecture than on an empty sheet of paper. Furthermore these notes are electronic so can be forwarded easily to friends, etc.

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Conclusion: tablets are coming and since now current version of Windows has built-in support for multitouch, they will be very widespread. It is not a secret that by now Tablet PC concept has failed as only 1 % of all Windows notebooks were tablets, but now it will be changing. Also the fact that even Apple wants to release tablet in next few months, means that idea of tablet is hitting the masses. Our advice is: if one of above mentioned scenarios is appealing to you, then get a tablet and pay special attention whether you need digitizer pen support or not. Otherwise stay safe with your existing notebook or netbook and smartphone!

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Apart from tablets, you might be interested also in Windows Mobile phones!

Posted in: Phones

About the Author:

Seasoned tech blogger. Host of the Tech Addicts podcast.
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