Developers Hold Key to Tablet PC's Success
The promise of its Tablet PC platform remains largely unfulfilled -- for now.
Microsoft has made significant progress with many of its mobile computing initiatives, especially its Compact Framework platform. However, the promise of its Tablet PC platform remains largely unfulfilled, not least in terms of general acceptance.
That's too bad, because it's a solid device. I've had access to a handful of models since the device debuted, beginning with the first commercially available Tablet PC, the Acer Travel Mate 100. That device never grabbed me, but I fell in love with the Toshiba Portege 3500. It has been my primary work computer practically since I received it, and I take it with me for everything from a week-long business trip to a visit to grandma's house. The latter is received better than you might think. Grandma likes the Tablet PC, too.
A couple years after its initial release, carrying around a Tablet PC still prompts endless questions from those around you, especially at developer-related shows. Do you like it? Immensely. How well does the handwriting recognition work? It's passable, in most situations, but I don't rely on it. Is it worth the premium? The answer to that depends on your expectations for the device.
In the past, I'd have said no, if you were buying it strictly for the convenience of what Tablet PC brings to the table relative to its cost. Today, I'm on the fence. The costs for Tablet PCs have dropped significantly relative to their non–Tablet PC counterparts, but there are relatively few specific applications that take advantage of ink outside the innate functionality provided by Tablet PC.
Like most platforms, Tablet PC needs an abundance of apps to help it realize its potential. To date, the most compelling Tablet PC–specific applications remain vertical niche applications, such as form-based, data-input systems. Other types of applications are coming along, but slowly. The first step in making any platform successful is to capture the hearts and minds of developers. Microsoft has sponsored a handful of contests intended to raise awareness for Tablet PC's inking capabilities among both developers and end users. The most recent contest, called "Does Your App Think in Ink?," featured $165,000 in total prizes for the best Tablet PC–enabled applications, including $100,000 for the first-place application. Not bad, as incentives go.
The winning entrant, Ambient Design's ArtRage, is a painting program that lets you emulate the effects of real-life brush, pen, and pencil strokes. You can't argue with the price, either. The application is available for free from the company's Web site. Second place went to Agilix Labs' GoBinder, an ink-enabled scheduling and note-taking program aimed at students and teachers. However, the most compelling applications among the remaining finalists were the vertical, niche-oriented applications that have long been associated with pen-based computing.
Getting started with writing ink-based applications is easy enough. Simply download the latest version of the SDK (currently version 1.7) from Microsoft's developer site for the Tablet PC. Improvements cited in this edition include improved handwriting recognition, access to digitizer data in real time, and improved inking components. The developer site also includes a useful FAQ and links to a handful of articles that walk you through the basics of creating ink-enabled applications.
Ink remains a luxury in a laptop, by and large, but a nice one. For example, it is handy when I need to sign a document and fax it to someone else. I can take a PDF-style or Word doc, write directly on the document on my screen, then save and fax or e-mail the altered document. The first time I did this was a Eureka moment, and it is this kind of functionality that isn't possible to achieve on a traditional laptop and that will help the Tablet PC–style computers gain wider acceptance.
VSM is putting together its first Tablet PC–specific article, which will run in the near future. You can also learn more about developing applications for Tablet PC at the upcoming Microsoft Windows Anywhere conference, which will be co-located with this year's VSLive! San Francisco. A VSLive! Gold Passport grants you complete access to all five conferences that comprise VSLive!, including VBITS, ASP Live!, C# Live!, SQL Live!, and Software Architecture Summit.
Patrick Meader is editor in chief of Visual Studio Magazine.