This story was written by Keith Dawson for the Media Unspun email newsletter and is Copyright 2002 by Keith Dawson.
M E D I A   U N S P U N
Microsoft's Pen Project Gets Ink

Microsoft introduces its Tablet PC today in New York, kicking off a $70 million promotional effort. Coverage of the technology blanketed the dailies like a Seattle fog. Squinting through the hype, Unspun discerned wistfulness, even hope, that this latest effort from Microsoft -- a pet project of Bill Gates, according to the Wall Street Journal -- might put some life, and profit, back into the desultory business of selling PCs.

The gee-whiz tone of some of the reviews of these PCs that accept pen input harked back to a time when cool technology alone was sufficient to make a story. CNET's coverage was more skeptical, quoting market researcher IDC on the relatively modest penetration of Tablet PCs expected in the next few years. The Journal noted that Microsoft's own projections for its Windows XP Tablet PC Edition software are an unremarkable half million to 1 million copies over the coming year.

The new devices, and the software underneath, can do handwriting recognition. But Microsoft plays down this aspect of pen computing, instead accenting applications and situations where the ability to enter and store hand scrawls and doodles is important. Reporters' evaluation of how good this technology is may have depended on how long they used one of the devices. The San Jose Mercury News gushed, "If you write on the screen in neat block letters or careful cursive, the correct characters appear in whatever application you're using." But David Pogue of the New York Times concluded, "The errors are tiny but infuriating." And The Journal's influential technology reviewer Walter S. Mossberg concluded that the devices in their current state are most suitable for niche markets. He knocked the minimal integration of pen-and-ink technology with Microsoft's Office software.

A number of reporters nodded to the sad history of failure of pen computing over the last decade. The Times' John Markoff turned in a thorough look at the pioneers from GO, Apple, and Eo, many of whom were glowering in the direction of Redmond. "If they're actually claiming the innovation high ground, they're just not being observant of history," one pioneer grumped. - Keith Dawson

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