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…
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…