Moore's law holds that computers will continually get faster, but there's no corollary that says users will bother to buy them. Consumers no longer feel the need to upgrade to the latest hardware every time Intel unveils a speedier microprocessor or Microsoft releases a heftier version of Windows. According to the consumer technology-research firm Odyssey, home users nowadays are perfectly willing to go almost five years between PC purchases. Meanwhile, the computer industry, mired in its worst-ever sales slump, is desperate to dream up a compelling innovation that will put the forced back in forced obsolescence.
And that innovation is: pen and virtual paper. At least, that's the new technology the industry is flogging, as embodied in a slew of tablet PCs hitting the market this month. More than 20 manufacturers, including Fujitsu, Compaq and Legend, have joined in a Microsoft-led initiative to produce laptop computers that double as legal pads. What distinguishes tablet PCs from conventional portables is their ability to capture a user's handwriting either as an exact digital copy, complete with bad penmanship and doodles, or by converting notes into digital text.
The tablet PC push may come as a surprise to those who thought the tech business was about crushing primitive methods of communication. But geeks have been unsuccessfully trying to develop and market a computerized writing pad for years. Raise your stylus if you remember the Apple Newton, which flopped in 1992. Engineers seem convinced that most of us prefer handwriting to typing and desperately desire to be freed from the shackles of keyboards. And now that computers are getting better at recognizing handwriting the Newton was laughably inept in that regard PC manufacturers are once again trying to sell us machines that work almost as well as a Bic and the back of a napkin.
The tablet PC also allows text input via the touchscreen's virtual keyboard a necessary alternative, because Microsoft's handwriting-recognition software remains irritatingly inconsistent. The Acer works better than the Newton, but it interpreted my handwritten phrase "Jack ran down the hill" as "Jade full dam its lull." I may have earned a C- in second-grade penmanship class, but my handwriting isn't that bad.
In fairness, the software is right more often than it's wrong. Still, that isn't the point. Inputting data and operating the computer with a stylus instead of a keyboard and mouse only seems to make a simple task unnecessarily cumbersome, not to mention more expensive. Tablet PCs are selling for about $2,000, roughly a $400 premium over comparably equipped conventional laptops. For the extra cash, you do get the new Microsoft Journal program, which allows you to write and organize notes in a spiffy "digital-ink" format that replicates real writing. You can change colors, use a highlighter, doodle, even erase a word by scratching it out. Notes can be archived and searched by keyword, although since hit-and-miss handwriting recognition is in play, searching may be less than reliable.
Will the extra versatility offered by tablet PCs get people excited enough to start buying computers again? It's doubtful. Tablets are too heavy and unwieldy to be used comfortably as notepads all day long. Not that you could. The TravelNote has a four-hour battery. That's fine for the class of potential business users of tablet PCs that Microsoft calls corridor warriors, Dilberts schlepping their tablets from meeting to meeting. But those of us who go on the road need to know our notepad isn't going to conk out after less than half a day away from an electrical outlet.
Bill Gates says that tablet PCs will replace ordinary laptops in five years. No doubt his prediction is based on the anticipation of lighter, cheaper, simpler versions to come. Manufacturers are close to producing sleek handheld devices that function less like computers and more like wireless electronic books, which can be used for Web surfing, e-mailing, and for reading newspapers, books and periodicals. Tablet technology isn't there yet, but the day will come when you'll finally be able to download TIME on a tablet and, yes, take it into the bathroom.