Where's the killer app?

Microsoft recently announced the winners of the Microsoft® Tablet PC Does Your Application Think in Ink? contest. You can find capsule reviews of the winners over at PC Magazine (not surprising, since their editors were on the judging panel). The winner, for a cool $100,000, turns out to be ArtRage a free drawing application with a "lickable" user interface that lets you pretend to be using crayons or pens or other drawing tools.

Pardon me while I yawn. I've played with ArtRage, and it's fun and cute, but is it really the most innovative thing you could think of to do with a Tablet PC? If it is, then why the heck do we even need the platform? Artists have been drawing on the PC with tablets for over a decade now. The only real innovation here is to have the stylus right on top of the drawing.

Looking down the list of winners, it seems like there are only a few categories for "wonderful creativity" on the Tablet PC:

  • Drawing programs
  • Programs that let you annotate existing content in other file formats
  • Programs that let you fill in forms

I don't see a "killer app" in that list, by which I mean one that would make the price differential of Tablet PCs sensible for a large user population. The one that probably gets cited the most often by Tablet PC proponents is the prospect of custom forms with on-screen data entry in various vertical markets. Well, folks, I've done data entry for a living (and it was one of the most boring jobs of my life, enlivened only by conversations with the other Kelly Girls there; fortunately, moving numbers from paper to computer via ten-key data entry did not require our brains or mouths to be in the loop). The fast way to enter data for most applications has nothing to do with a fancy Windows interface and everything to do with not ever taking your hands off of the keyboard. That's why "green screen" data entry is hanging on in many places; it saves time and therefore money. Of course, there are exceptions: an application for EMTs at accident scenes, for example. But how many populations of users can you think of who are (a)mobile and (b)in need of fast data entry? Not many.

The other thing I hear a lot is "but I can take notes in meetings without being intrusive like you laptop users." Puh-leeze! Anyone who thinks the Tablet PC is unobtrusive in meetings has been spending a wee bit too much time in front of the blinking cursor lately. And yes, I've been there, done that, and wasn't impressed. You want an unobtrusive way to take notes, bring a pad of paper and a pen.

I suspect there are two real reasons for this push on Tablet PCs as being a frontier of computing. First, from the geek side, it's just cool to have the latest gadgets. If you have a Tablet PC, then you've one-upped my practically antique laptop. But more importantly, from the Microsoft side, it's the potential of new Windows markets that drives the desperate hope for the Tablet PC to succeed. Microsoft is the victim of their own success here: now that just about everyone who wants a PC already has one, they have to find new ways to sell Windows, or face the wrath of Wall Street.

As for me, I don't need one, don't want one, and remain amused at those who think that if only I touched one I'd suddenly see the light.

About the Author

Mike Gunderloy has been developing software for a quarter-century now, and writing about it for nearly as long. He walked away from a .NET development career in 2006 and has been a happy Rails user ever since. Mike blogs at A Fresh Cup.

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