Damn you, Indecision!

The Nokia N800, the Apple Newton, and a note about Tablet PCs…

While perusing a discussion thread on Internet Tablet Talk about must-have apps for the N800 (trying to find apps that still work for the 770…), I initiated a Google search that led me to this interesting page comparing the interfaces and quirks of the Nokia N800 to the Apple Newton.  It’s quite an extensive article, so I just skimmed it, and bookmarked it for later reading.  However, I was reminded of something that I feel is a big deficiency in Tablet PCs — you can’t directly ink in text fields.  There may be applications to help get around that in some cases, but the OS itself is not architected such that you just directly ink your text into text fields.  The Newton supported this way back in the mid-to-late 90s!  A quote from the N800 v. Newton page:

The Newton has real, systematic handwriting recognition. Not just a better HWR engine (and it’s far superior to the very slow, inaccurate one in the N800), but one which is part and parcel of the GUI itself. On the Newton, you write directly in text fields and entry areas. Various on-screen and hardware keyboards and other input systems are still available if you wish them. The Newton’s HWR even cleans up shapes and doodles, has sophisticated built-in handwriting gestures (“scrubbing” a word to delete it, writing a caret to make space to insert a word, etc.), and allows you to turn off the recognition or delay it indefinitely (it’d then store and display the handwriting exactly as you had written, or if you preferred, in miniaturized form).

It is amazing that even now, in Vista, you still have to use a floating Tablet Input Panel (TIP) to initiate inking text, or tapping it out on the virtual keyboard, if you prefer.  At least on Tablet PCs you can ink out words freeform — in print, cursive, or a mix of both — rather than being limited to individually inking letters to spell out words (there is this option in the TIP, though) on the N800.

I remember back when UMPCs were first announced, and there was a fledgling discussion forum for Origami devices (can’t recall the site at the moment).  Someone had asked a general question about whether or not you could write directly in a text field, like the address bar in a browser, and one of the moderators, being a total newcomer to the Tablet PC platform himself, answered that he wasn’t sure, but would find out.  I cringed to myself thinking that if I answered that question, I would have to tell them that they’d have to tap on the TIP before being able to write out their text.  And it’s still that way today!  It’s inefficient, and when you think about it, rather unintuitive, given the paradigm of text fields on paper forms.

I love the Tablet PC platform, even though I find myself not using it as much in my daily routine as I used to (due to several different circumstances which I won’t discuss now).  I am glad for the updates to Tablet functionality in Vista, though I don’t use Vista on my current TPC.  But I really hope that the inking interface will be updated to be even more intuitive so that you can ink anywhere, especially directly in text fields, instead of depending on the TIP all the time.  It would be awesome if that were implemented in Vista SP1 or SP2, or beyond…  Or even in other non-Tablet-PC devices that are now starting to use handwriting input, like the N800.  I’m still waiting for Apple’s update to the Newton, or competitor to Tablet PCs…

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4 responses

  1. I’m hoping Apple upsizes the iPhone and turns it into a tablet. If they put in an active digitizer, while keeping the touch interface, and add in Newton functionality, they would have one excellent tablet in their lineup.

    However, I do think it a bit unfair to compare the Newton to the Tablet PC. The Newton was designed around the interface. Its apps were built for pen input. The Tablet PC has an OS with pen interface, but there are few apps designed for that. Outlook, for example, is not built for pen input. TEO helps, but it is an add-on, not a rebuild. Microsoft needs to step up and support their TPC platform with pen-optimized apps. If they released a version of Outlook that was TEO’d throughout with functionality like InkGestures (c’mon Microsoft, cut Josh and Loren some checks), then we would have something truly comparable to the Newton.

    July 26, 2007 at 7:41 am

  2. “I’m hoping Apple upsizes the iPhone and turns it into a tablet. If they put in an active digitizer, while keeping the touch interface, and add in Newton functionality, they would have one excellent tablet in their lineup.”

    Amen, Brotha! It’s just so tempting to see the iPhone as a pre-cursor to a Mac tablet…

    “However, I do think it a bit unfair to compare the Newton to the Tablet PC.”

    I don’t really agree. You mentioned that the Newton’s apps were built for pen input. Why not use the same model in Tablet PC? I really think that they should’ve made every app optimized for inking. That’s one reason why some people stick their noses up at TPCs, the apps aren’t optimized for pen input, so some users don’t see any benefit to having the pen input at all. Lots of people type way faster than they write, after all. It’s as if the pen input was like an afterthought, rather than the main event. I really think Microsoft should’ve gone whole hog with using the pen for more than just HWR. Why did pen flicks not show up sooner than Vista? Why do 3rd-party developers have to make add-ons for Outlook and Word to add intuitive ways of editing with the pen, or “penciling things in” to your schedule (pun totally intended, even if not spelled correctly)? Merely having the pen act as a mouse replacement in some cases is missing the point.

    Well, okay. I guess it is unfair to compare the Newton to the Tablet PC. I should’ve said that the Tablet PC should’ve taken what the Newton started with and run with it. So, never mind, I guess we do agree. 🙂

    July 26, 2007 at 6:04 pm

  3. Yep, and the ridiculous thing is, we only need one app – Outlook – to be fully ink-enabled to have a more Newton-like experience. I love TEO, but how great would it be to ink directly in the month view of the calendar, or write directly in the email body and have that convert to text instead having to do that through the TIP? If MS would release an ink-optimized pack of Outlook and OneNote, they could generate greatly renewed interest in the platform.

    July 27, 2007 at 7:30 am

  4. True, I guess. However, I don’t use Outlook on my Tablet PC, so I’m not as concerned with it. Though I have been tempted a couple times to start using it just so I could send out handwritten e-mails, but I know I wouldn’t do that very often. Plus I find Outlook to be so friggin’ bloated and boggy that I really don’t like using it. I wish there were another way of inking out e-mails, but it’s not a big deal.

    IIRC, the sticky note program that is installed on Tablet PCs doesn’t have a way to attach reminder alarms to each note. That would be cool. I guess you kind of get that functionality through Outlook, but again, Outlook is not for me.

    I would =love= ink integration with Google apps (ahem, if ink were more integrated in the OS, it’d be less of an issue, since any browser would have inking support :P). I use Gmail extensively and dabble a bit in Google Docs.

    July 27, 2007 at 12:18 pm

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