I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired of hearing about how the tablet pc is dead, the latest was this piece from Engadget.  I know that many of the Tablet regulars (Peter, Lora, etc…) have had plenty of posts indicating that the tablet is still alive and kicking.  Plus there’s been plenty of criticism about marketing of the tablet, the fact that you can’t get a good demo at CompUsa and that the general public just doesn’t know what a Tablet PC is and finally all the tech pundits who say we’ve been there, seen it, done that and just generally say it’s old hat.

This may be one of those posts that end up in flames both from any readers out there but also from my own bosses at Microsoft.  So let me clearly say that these are my opinions and don’t necessarily correspond to the views of my employer, etc!

First off the Tablet is not dead, I know personally many of the people who are working very hard on the next release and helped to hire many of them.  Secondly I think part of the confusion comes down to a fundamental issue that I had a very large hand in long ago…. “Who was the Tablet PC designed for?”

I have the inside track here as I’m one of the people who helped make the decisions relative to what the Tablet PC was going to be and what we needed to accomplish in order for the Tablet PC to be useful to users.

When I first started on the Tablet team, I spent a lot of time looking through previous Pen Computing efforts.  I had previously worked on the Compaq Concerto, my dad owned one (against my own recommendation at the time), I’m familiar with the Newton, had an original Palm Pilot, etc.  One thing that was clear was it wasn’t clear who the machine was built for.   The small form factors were clearly meant for things like calendaring and task information and some very light note taking, but on-going record keeping or detailed notes just didn’t seem to be suited for these devices.  The old Windows for Pen Computing suffered because the main thing that users were always faced with was to convert their handwriting to text on the fly which doesn’t fit well into the user’s tasks.  This isn’t to say that some power users of either size device couldn’t do more involved tasks or change their work practices to incorporate these devices; just that it wasn’t easy and often not practical.

I remember early on that I had lots of discussions with the Alex, Bert, Chuck and Butler (and later Cynthia) about the users tasks that I felt we had to nail with no compromises was in fact a difficult discussion since most products at Microsoft are not designed in this fashion.  Unfortunately a good portion of products have been designed around a technology, a platform or some higher collection of tasks that often don’t mirror what end users really want to do.  And to top it off, most products are designed with the bleeding edge, early adopter user in mind.  In this case I had argued that if we wanted Tablets to succeed this time around, we’ve got to make sure that our signature task was so well covered that the users who would eventually get this computer from their IT department would find it immediately useful.  Our signature task if there was any doubt about it was/is “taking notes in a face to face meeting”. This was the one thing that we were adding in addition to being a great notebook...

What does that mean?  That we did most of our user research and almost all of our usability testing on knowledge workers in large organizations who spend numerous hours a day in meetings who were not early adopters or extreme tech enthusiasts.  Does that have a big impact on the design and design decisions?  You betcha!  Look at the simplicity of Journal, how streamlined it is, how the pen model works etc.  It’s not geared to the tech-head, but rather people who just want to take notes and get done with it.  Maybe for another post, I’ll talk about what Journal looked like before we ran some field studies (e.g. before we got rid of a lot of cool tech invention – that was just great algorithms and code, but really got in the way of real users trying to take notes).

Bottom line:  Tablet PC wasn’t designed for the majority of people who will ever read this post.  It was made for the majority of people who are in large enterprises who are busily running from meeting to meeting and have to take notes to keep up with what’s going on and what they need to do. 

Sure some of us fit into this category, but we’re also early adopters, we want more, expect more and want more cool gadgets, features, and bells and whistles.  We’re also not satisfied with simple functionality or simple tasks; we have to make it into something which it really isn’t.  Most reviewers (and IT professionals) are early adopters and they place the review in context of all the cool things they can expect the gadget to perform.  There are some exceptions, like Walt Mossberg, but generally tech ideas and products today are evaluated in the popular press of the techno-elite.  Sure we can make pronouncements of what should live and what should die, but we should look and evaluate these in terms of what they are designed for.

Thus in the service of trying to create a great experience for the potential masses of Tablet users 3 to 5 years from now –- when an IT department just deploys tablets as a standard piece of equipment to the masses of knowledge workers out there, I helped to foster an atmosphere where the Tech Pundits proclaim Tablets are dying since these same tech elite aren’t satisfied with the current offering which wasn’t directly designed for them in the first place.  This of course leads to an uphill battle for marketing to get Tablets into peoples hands to try out – since most people who try a Tablet out for the designed purpose actually find it very useful, needed and usable.

There’s plenty more to this story, but my basic belief if that those who are evaluating Tablet’s today aren’t necessarily the target user and thus don’t see the value and promise in the platform, but instead are looking towards all the cool things that the technology could do rather than the simple and mundane tasks that it actually enhances.