PCs Get Touchy-Feely

Opinion: Tablet technology just may have some general use after all.

Youll have to forgive me if this column seems a little jumpy or disjointed. Im writing it using a stylus and a tablet PC, and Im trying to get used to them.

Aw, who am I kidding? There is no way I would write anything as long as this column using a stylus and a tablet. I hate using pens and pencils—on paper or on computers.

Its funny to watch the gyrations as vendors try to come up with something better than typing on a keyboard.

Using a pen is more natural and comfortable than typing, they tell us. Yeah, right!

Or how about when they told us that everyone would soon be using voice commands and voice recognition to control and enter content into their computers? Great! An office full of people talking to their PCs will make a train full of cell phone yakkers sound like paradise.

Sure, keyboard entry and control have a lot of flaws and problems. But Im starting to feel that, in many ways, the process can be described along the same lines that Winston Churchill described democracy: A keyboard is the worst way to enter information into a computer, except for all the others that have been tried.

Thats why Ive been amused by the renewed push by Microsoft and hardware vendors to gain acceptance of the tablet PC among the general user population.

I had hoped that we had all settled on the fact that tablet PCs are nice for specific uses—like factory floors, hospitals and in the field—but arent attractive for general PC use.

But too many big companies have invested too much time and money in the tablet PC to be satisfied with small vertical markets.

So, once again, we are seeing new products and stories appearing in big media outlets about the rejuvenated tablet lines and how this may be the time that the tablet PC finally becomes something that everyone uses.

Its a nice little story, but the tablet as a general-use system is one pill that Im not willing to swallow.

No regular user will ever accept a tablet PC in the pure slate form factor, with no built-in keyboard.

The convertible tablets are much more intriguing and cool to tote around for a while.

But, eventually, most users will find that they almost always use the tablet in its laptop form and will start to wonder why they didnt just go with a standard laptop in the first place.

Im sure the tablet PC will have a nice long life in the vertical areas in which its a good fit. But I dont expect to see them regularly at my local Starbucks.

Like most overhyped technologies, however, I do expect to see many elements of tablet PC technology begin to migrate to the mainstream.

For example, I recently saw a demo of an intriguing new LifeBook system from Fujitsu Computer Systems that added some twists to the tablet.

For one thing, the LifeBook doesnt require an active tablet PC stylus—I could use any old pointing device, like a leftover stylus from my Palm-using days or even my own fingers.

Youre thinking, "So what? Youre still using a stylus and tablet."

But, to me, being able to use my fingers and not worry about losing a tablet-specific stylus opens up a lot of usage doors.

For example, the LifeBook is a convertible system, and, chances are, Id use it mostly in its laptop form. But Id be happy to use it in a finger-enabled slate form for many applications, especially in situations when I am not entering lots of text or performing any complicated procedures.

And unlike old-school touch-screens, the LifeBook screen is bright and clear and has the look of any other laptop screen.

In addition, while the LifeBook can run the tablet-specific Windows under Microsofts new relaxed specifications for tablets, it can also run under standard Windows XP and still retain all its input and control flexibilities.

So while I dont expect to see myself buying and using a tablet PC system anytime soon, I wont be at all surprised to find that my future laptops have gained many of the characteristics of a tablet to enable touch-screen-based control when it makes sense.

In fact, I think I could swallow something like that quite easily.

Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at jim_rapoza@ziffdavis.com.

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