iPad: Dodging The "Doonesbury Bullet"…

Doonesbury cartoons flayed the Newton to death for its (dreadful) handwriting recognition…

Here’s a little story I’d like to share on why I believe Apple’s iPad will succeed where Microsoft Windows-based TabletPCs have failed to gain more than a tiny niche-market share. I believe it offers a classic illustration of “geek” versus “consumer” thinking…

I happened to be having an online conversation several months ago with a former colleague who had been one of the Handwriting Recognition (HR) experts on the Microsoft TabletPC team. His view was that Apple would have real trouble launching a Tablet device – because Microsoft holds a number of key patents in the area of handwriting recognition, and he could see no way in which they’d be able to get around those to create a usable device.

It’s true that Microsoft has indeed done some great work around handwriting recognition. My wife Tanya wrote the first draft of a 400,000-word book using it, on a Windows TabletPC. It wasn’t absolutely perfect. But it was perfectly usable. And I’m sure MSFT has a ton of patents around it.

Apple, of course, has been seriously bitten in the past by handwriting recognition – or lack of it. The Newton was launched in 1993, as the first in a new category of device – the Personal Digital Assistant. Theory was, you’d write on the screen with a stylus, Newton would recognize your writing, and turn it into typed text on the screen. Newton might not do a perfect job at first, but it would “learn” your handwriting as it went along, and rapidly improve.

It was a disaster. Newton’s recognition mistakes were so legendary that the widely-syndicated Doonesbury cartoon strip poked fun at them for months, at the end of which time Newton was a laughing-stock. It eventually died a well-deserved death.

I bet Steve Jobs vowed at that time that the company would never again ship a device which depended on handwriting recognition for its success. Anyone on the iPad team who suggested putting it in would be given The Glasgow Farewell. (Pick a window – you’re leaving!)

Classic. If there’s an obstacle, go around.

To the geeks at Microsoft, though, handwriting recognition was one of The Last Great Problems of Computing – a really interesting and complex area. Lots of languages, too! They tackled it head-on.

And, you know what? By applying brute force, effort, huge investment, and some really smart people – they solved it! I’ve never tried Windows HR with any language other than English – where it does work really well. But I’m sure it does a great job on other languages, too – even Chinese and Japanese.

And you know what else? It won’t matter! Because when you pack a tablet device with enough power to run Windows and Office, do handwriting recognition, full-screen video, and everything else, you end up with a machine that is too thick, too heavy, uses too much power, and runs too hot. And it doesn’t help that the hardware manufacturers who’re building them all get off on a 16:9 aspect ratio video trip at the same time.

You’ve built a fleet of Hummers, when the market just wants a Prius…

iPad: It’s definitely not a Newton…

Steve Jobs knows how to hook consumers. The first Macintoshes had 128K of RAM, and only a 400K floppy disk – no hard drive at all. But they reset people’s expectations of what a computer should look like, how easy it should be to use, and what you could do with one. As they got better, people just kept upgrading, with no resentment. Today, Macintosh laptops and desktops are better than Windows machines. You pay more, for sure. But if you can afford it, it’s worth it.

The Windows TabletPC philosophy was: “If we can build it, they will come”. It’s a valid gamble, if you have deep enough pockets. Occasionally, it even comes off.

Apple’s philosophy, on the other hand, is: “First, we get them to come. Then we can take them with us.” If you create a market with enough customers, they will tell you what they want next. They’ll tell you what’s missing. You build on a relationship with a LOT of customers. And you make a LOT of money while you’re doing it. And oh, by the way – there’s a new business model that goes along with it so you make more money AFTER you’ve sold the device.

I would not be in the least surprised to find that in a few years there’s a high-end iPad that is a powerful computer used for many tasks other than media consumption. I’ve already speculated elsewhere that we might see a stylus for the iPad sooner rather than later. Apple’s website says the iPad’s touch-recognition capability is high-precision; so a stylus ought to give a lot more precision than a finger for applications like drawing, for example.

Geeks have been complaining since the launch: “It doesn’t do multitasking!” “There’s no support for Flash!” “It’s not an open environment!”

All I have to say is this: It’s a Prius, not a Ferrari – yet. And you’ll see plenty on the road…

iPad: No egg freckles on its face…

11 thoughts on “iPad: Dodging The "Doonesbury Bullet"…

  1. dan

    Bill, like others have said, and I echo them, it's great to see you writing again on your blog, although thoughtful and insightful ideas and anecdotes and predictions. I wrote THE SNAILPAPER STATEMENT today, and here's a preview: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that while the Digital Age is upon us fast and furious, the print newspaper — hereafter dubbed the "snailpaper" — shall persevere as a good daily read, a fascinating look at the world around us and a valuable tool for understanding oped pundits and above the fold headlines. Sure, the dear snailpaper will also be seen as a useful tool for wrapping fish at the Fulton Fish Market or lining the bird cage in the den, but all kidding aside — har! har! — the daily snailpaper can hold its head high and be certain of its place in the culture. While news migrates in pixels and bytes to the Internet at an exponential rate, piling breaking story upon breaking story and turning everyone and his mother into a 24/7 news freak and RSS aggregator, the plodding snailpaper will nevertheless remain the bedrock of analysis and insight, from sea to shining sea, delivered at a snail's pace, yes, read at a snail's pace, yes, and absorbed, word for word — on glorius printed paper! white newsprint reflecting inked letters! — at a snail's pace, yes, as long as the Republic of Letters shall live." For blast here:http://zippy1300.blogspot.com/2010/02/snailpaper-statement-mini-version-by.html

  2. warren

    "I bet Steve Jobs vowed at that time that the company would never again ship a device which depended on handwriting recognition for its success."Probably not. At the time, he was with NeXT. Apple, IIRC, was under the guidance of a CEO whose last post was heading the Coca-Cola company.This might explain a lot about the terrible, terrible way Apple got off the path for a while. A dozen different desktop systems, only one of which (the Quadra series) was any bloody good.And the Newton. Oy, the Newton. I owned one myself. By comparison, the Palm was a stroke of elegant, useful genius.

  3. Bill Hill

    @anonymous:"However the hand recognition of Newton is present in Mac OS X"Which the iPad doesn't run, of course…I would not be in the least surprised to see Inkwell appear on iPad. In fact, I'd be stunned if it didn't, at some point. I just don't think Steve wants to deal with that issue and have it distract from the launch excitement he's generated.

  4. Anonymous

    Good perspective on the iPad, btw. I am struck by how many certified anti-tech geeks and luddities (typically older) who are asking about the iPad, and are enthused. We might not be able to quite understand how this strikes them. I'm wondering if a large segment of the population has felt excluded and locked out from the tech revolution these last 30 years, and this one device now makes sense to them in a way we can only dimly imagine.Maybe how women's runway fashion strikes us geeks (generally impenetrable and bizarre) would be analogous to how tech strikes them — ? Dunno…

  5. Bill Hill

    The Macintosh was a similar breakthrough device. Many computer geeks hated it and condemned it as a toy. But it changed computing forever.I think iPad may be the same.BTW, I'm an oldie myself (60 last birthday). So I'm a pre-computer person who ended up transitioning into the industry and working in it for about 23 years.I don't think of myself as a geek, though. Maybe I'm in denial…

  6. asotir

    I wonder if it wouldn't be simple for Microsoft to incorporate Handwriting Recognition on the WinMo7 devices, much the way Nuance is providing Voice Recognition on the iPhone: sending the raw data to big online servers that do the heavy lifting, then sending back the results.Office Live might incorporate such techniques, too.

  7. DaMacGuy

    Although I never used a Newton, I used Palm OS devices for years. While Graffitti was very good, I was never able to perfect error-free handwriting recognition, plus it was never as fast or as accurate as entering text with a keyboard, even a virtual one as on the iPhone, which I now use. Given that penmanship is an extinct discipline in most American schools, and that most people write like doctors, does handwriting recognition have a chance? I think the reality is that it's almost irrelevant. And, if you don't need handwriting recognition, do you need a stylus? Probably not.So, congratulations to the Windows engineers who got HR to work well. I'm afraid the world has passed it by.

  8. Anonymous

    ..'Today, Macintosh laptops and desktops are better than Windows machines..'That is wildly inaccurate – Windows is an OS, not a machine (computer)What about self – built computers running Linux V Mac..?What is your definition of 'better'..?Mac OS V's Windows OS may be 'better', but not the hardware on custom built bleeding edge home computers, it is there that the concept of MAC fails.

  9. Bill Hill

    @ Anonymous: You're splitting hairs. I could have been pedantic and said "computers running MacOS are better than those running Windows". But I'm sure everyone knows what I meant.And how many "self-built computers running Linux V Mac" do you think are out there – really?


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