Tablet PCs Ink a Shady Proposition

Commentary: Microsoft is pushing ink technology in hopes of continuing its domination of desktop computing

As Ive followed Microsofts Tablet PC announcements over the past months, and as I watched the Webcast of the platform launch yesterday, Ive seen a steady shift toward emphasizing Microsofts ink data format over real handwriting recognition.

What this says to me is a) the company is busy working to lower expectations on how well (or not well) the handwriting recognition will work; and b) Microsoft is pushing ink as hard as it can because thats the place where it gains the greatest competitive return on its investment in creating the Tablet PC platform.

I think the Tablet PC is Microsofts new Trojan Horse, a tool the company dearly hopes will shift users away from that most interoperable of standards, ASCII, into the completely Microsoft-centric ink data format.

During the launch, there was the usual parade of MTV-style video clips on how the Tablet PCs mobility and small size made it a better tool for mobile workers.

That could well be true. I use a laptop as my main writing machine and I like the idea of a smaller PC. Personally, Im attracted to the idea of trading away a faster CPU and expansion capabilities for something lighter with built-in wireless networking. In fact, Im buying a personal-use laptop in the next few months and will be checking out Tablet PCs as part of my market research. Coolness, they have.

Its that table of silky new hardware shown at the launch that is the carrot in this deal. In his closing comments at the launch, Bill Gates said something quite revealing:

"In fact, we would say that as we move into the rest of this decade the idea of ink as a standard data type will become as commonplace as the graphical user interface did with the popularity of Windows. By the end of the decade well look back and say, was there ever a time where computing didnt involve having these kinds of applications, this kind of accessibility to information? "

This is Microsofts real dream. Tablet PC is at its heart a platform play.

Its what Microsoft hopes and desperately desires will be an extension of its ability to maintain control of the desktop computing environment in order to sell high-margin operating system products with every system the hardware vendors ship, and move software vendors over to ink APIs that only work on one operating system on the market—Windows XP Tablet PC Edition.

Remember, this version of Windows is the most expensive desktop OS that Microsoft offers and, with the hardware so closely tied to the OS right now, theres no other choice available for hardware manufacturers.

Meanwhile, on the application side, documents with native support for embedded ink are yet one more application file compatibility hurdle.

Working with ink in an industry-standard bit-map format (which is its least common denominator format), of course, is ludicrously inefficient and undesirable, as Microsoft Research staff discovered, which is why they came up with a new data format in the first place.

Tying applications to the tablet hardware, and to the ink APIs and format, also provide customers who purchase the devices with (ahem) incentive to upgrade all their key applications as well, something both Microsoft and other ISVs comfortable with the Microsoft-only platform desire. Otherwise, there just arent many reasons for customers to upgrade their copies of Microsoft Office.

Even after all these implications are examined, I still dont know if ink is even a useful, effective technology. If handwriting recognition doesnt pan out, then ink is really the only option available to Table PC users on the go. But is it good enough to make non-keyboard data entry actually desirable for those of us not in specific vertical industries, where slate-style portable PCs are already in use? Well discover that over the next year.

Remember, despite all the talk of Tablet PCs use in warehouses and hospitals, Microsoft isnt in the business of selling to vertical markets that will put up with poor data input methods to get portability. Microsofts profit expectations simply prohibit this business model. The Tablet PC must become a mass-market product for it to have the impact it needs to stay in the drivers seat.

Theres only one thing that will make the Tablet PC a mass-market product—it has to be a better laptop. The whole pen-and-ink technology push is sexy, slick and disingenuous. That pen will be used as nothing more than an ordinary mouse 95 percent of the time.

Once the novelty of ink wears off, users will turn back to their keyboards once again. Keyboards work, plain and simple. (Those using Asian glyphs come at the Tablet PC from an entirely different perspective, and I expect the technology to be more successful in those settings. For large character sets, pen-based input is probably the best-suited technology for data entry after voice recognition.)

However, for those of us using European character sets, a keyboard is very hard to beat. Even if handwriting recognition were perfect, I would still type simply because its faster—one finger movement per character is inherently more efficient than the crossing-my-ts-dotting-my-is, back-and-forth process of handwriting.

Dont get distracted by all the ink being spilled on pens and digitizers. If and only if Tablet PCs can demonstrate they are competitive with laptops in every important way (including cost), there will be a place for them in the market. Otherwise, you accept platform lock-in for what, exactly?

Think Im being unreasonably skeptical? Let me know at