Before we can talk about the tablet PC we have to go into my attic. Up the winding stairs, behind boxes of toys and on top of a dusty filing cabinet, sit two old Apple Newtons.
The Apple Newton was the first great attempt at pen-based computing. It failed miserably.
The biggest problem was that Apple oversold the handwriting-recognition powers of the Newton. Many was the time I would write something like "spotted dog," and Newton's software would scramble the words into something like "Pass me the piano."
When Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates unveiled its tablet PC operating system in New York last week, he was quick to point out that many failed attempts litter the path to pen-based computing.
But while the new tablet PC is very cool for a number of reasons, it's still not the answer to pen-based computing. It could, however, be the golden key that unlocks profitable digital publishing.
Microsoft wants to portray these new computers as the notepads of the future. The idea is that workers will stroll around their offices, go to meetings, attend conferences, and scribble their notes on their tablet PC instead of on regular paper. Well, maybe.
The problem is that Microsoft has decided to solve the problem of handwriting recognition by not addressing it at all. When you write a note on the tablet PC screen, the software does not understand your handwriting much better than previous machines. It simply saves the note as an image. The software can learn your handwriting over time, but Microsoft hopes people will save their notes in the handwritten form. The result is that the tablet PC is not the holy grail of pen-based computing.
But digital publishing is another matter. The tablet PC's light weight makes it very portable. Combined with Micro-soft's Reader, which improves the quality of the type on the screen, and with a longer battery life, reading on a computer becomes a real possibility. London's Financial Times plans to create a tablet PC version of the paper, and others who publish electronic PDF editions will be happy to see the new tablets take off.
Computer manufacturers, of course, are hoping the tablet PC will spur lagging sales. Unfortunately, with the tablets starting around $2,000, the hopes of computermakers - and the publishing industry - may have to wait a while.
But at least the tablet PC offers interesting possibilities. If Microsoft can improve handwriting recognition, and if the companies that make the machines can find a way to lower the price, in a few years this little machine may really change the face of computing.