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The Slate Experience

I remember an article from 1995 where Bill Gates was espousing Windows 95 and how it would lead to the paperless office. CD-ROM’s could hold so much more data than a pad of paper. Why would you ever write on paper again? It’s fifteen years later and there’s still lots of preference to paper over computers for certain tasks. Why is that?

For one thing paper is cheaper. So when you don’t need the information to be sortable, searchable, or version controlled, why pay the price?

The other thing is that for unstructured input, it’s still easier to jot a note on a pad, than to type something into the computer. The other issue is that note paper has pretty much one task: being available to take and read notes. Computers do lots of things. So a user has to initialize the note taking program. This could take more time than entering the data itself.

In many a sci-fi novel I’ve read, computers have completely taken over paper. From one novel (whose name escapes me) where “Teachers” were closet sized computers in every child’s room, and the child had to learn punch cards as a way to communicate with their “Teacher”, to the flimsiplast of Star Wars where thin flimsy computers are passed around like paper. So what might it take for computers to over take paper?

One of the reasons why computers didn’t make paper a novelty back in 1995 was that paper was portable. Sure CD-ROMs were portable, but not like paper. Plus, not too many people had the ability to create CD’s, and even if they did one wouldn’t generally have 750 MB worth of data before committing it to non volatile memory. In addition, even if you had a CD that didn’t mean that you had easy access to a computer where you might want to take or read a note, plus that computer might not be able to even understand what was on the CD.

When laptops started coming out around the turn of the millennium, surly that marked the downfall of paper. While portable, laptops are still heavy. And while you could have a race of someone typing and someone writing, the typing person would win, the race doesn’t cover the whole experience of thinking “I need to take a note” and writing the note down. Plus laptops still have some of the aforementioned problems.

Perhaps if you could write on a computer, that would solve the problem. Note quite. Tablet PC’s have been out for about five years now. I don’t see anyone really using the tablet features of tablet PC’s anymore. I do remember seeing more of that when they came out, but I think people have given up and use tablets as laptops now. It’s just the easiest thing to do. Plus in all of the ads for Vista and Windows 7, I don’t remember tablet PC’s being called out as something special. The ability to touch the screen hasn’t really improved the ability to use the computer.

What if you are in a situation where you do know you are going to be taking a lot of notes. Say, like a doctor in a doctors office. I don’t see doctors carrying around tablet PC’s. They’re still too heavy. The netbooks of the last three years are lighter, but they’re not tablets. Today, doctors have a printed piece of paper to take notes on, take notes on the paper, and then have an assistant transfer the notes to some digital record. This generally even involves scanning the piece of paper into the computer. Or they have tape recorders and do the same thing. At Group Health, more and more of the exam rooms have computers in them, and they’ve found ways to make it easier for the doctor to enter data, but it’s still not what it should be. Plus the doctor always prints out the results for you. Waste of paper.

Perhaps PDA’s or smart phones will over take paper. That hasn’t been the case. Windows has had touch PDA’s or smart phones for about eight years now. As an owner of one, I would love to use it as my primary note taking device, but it just doesn’t work. While the screen on a portable device may be big enough to takes notes with, it just isn’t big enough to read notes with. Not a collection of notes anyway. I can flip through three pages of a notepad way easier than I can scan through the same amount of data on my smart phone. Plus, I try to write on my smart phone and it just doesn’t work. I try, I really do, but it’s never legible, and the typing is way slower than writing. So I always do two thumb typing on my phone.

Welcome to 2010 and the introduction of the slate computers. They’re around the size of a pad of paper, but have a power of a computer. The first popular one to the market is Apples iPad. I don’t know how well it works for a note taking device, but I’m pretty positive that it’s more cumbersome than a tablet PC or a netbook. Here’s why, the iPad is optimized to be used with your finger. Do you write with your finger? no. When people really starting writing a lot did they dip their fingers in ink? no. They used feathers; and the sharper the better. Precision is the key.

I know that Apple really likes bashing on stylus’s, but they really do make for natural pointing devices and writing devices. They are thin and to the point. The problem that Windows mobile devices, and Windows tablets, have had is that they’ve also had the stylus be the only way to effectively navigate on the devices, even when it’s counter intuitive. When I’m not doing data entry I just want to use my finger to navigate around the device. But when it comes time to give the device information I want to use something more precise than my finger.

There in lies the key. With a pad of paper, I can carry it around, and as long as a pen or a pencil doesn’t touch it, no data is entered. I can foresee one of the biggest problems of people trying to use their first generation slate computers, is that they’ll find that when if they try to use it to replace their clipboard that mysterious things are going to happen. When they’re just carrying it around the bumps and presses are going to cause some interesting things to happen.

Portable music players have solved this problem by having hold switches. I haven’t seen a hold switch on a slate computer. Doesn’t mean they don’t exists, but I could easily see Apple seeing a hold switch as being un trendy and not having one for the iPad. I don’t know if HP’s Slate will have one either. But what I really want in a device is one that can detect when I’m using my finger, and have that navigate the device, and when I’m using a stylus and have that enter data (drawing, writing, etc), and not mix the two up. Also, any other “touch” to the computer should be ignored. Say, like if my arm brushes it, or a piece of paper is placed on top of it. Just like how I don’t usually use my pencil to flip through sheets in a notebook, or how I don’t dip my fingers in ink to take notes, I think an ideal device will be able to determine the difference between navigating and entering data. A computer that will replace paper will have to be more natural to use than paper.

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