Bill Gates: The Pen Is Mightier Than the Finger in Tablet Computing

Gates v ipad


You may think Apple‘s runaway success with the iPad, the rich and user-loved touch UI on the iPhone, and Apple’s barrage of future-facing patents had really given finger-control a future in tablet PCs. But dear Bill Gates has a different view.

Bill was speaking to the Fox Business Network about a number of things, but the important thing to remember is that Bill tried to lead the charge into tablet-format PCs years ago. Gate’s idea was to bolt support for pen-based touch computing onto an otherwise common all-garden Windows XP environment. The machines would be adapted laptops, with touch sensitive screens that could rotate to cover the keyboard. Due to the conventional windows-icons-mice-pointers environment of Windows, a pen-based control was absolutely necessary, and it also enabled neat tricks like handwriting recognition for text entry.

But the tiny controls in Windows, optimized for precise pointer control, meant that finger-based input was less than ideal–a fact that Steve Ballmer unwittingly confirmed at the big HP tablet reveal earlier this year, when his (admittedly chunky) fingers found it hard to manipulate the controls on the Windows 7-powered machine, as he tried to demonstrate its power and ease of use.

Which makes Gates’ words to Fox all the more intriguing. “We think that work with the pen that Microsoft pioneered will become a mainstream for students,” he noted, before pointing out “It can give you a device that you can not only read, but also create documents at the same time.” This can be nothing but a dig at Apple’s iPad, which some commenters, obviously Gates included, see as an almost entirely content-access device rather than a tool for content creation. Apple obviously thinks that the iPad is a suitable finger-powered machine for content creation, else it wouldn’t have released mobile versions of Pages, Numbers, and Keynote.

But Gates’s words are also a hint that Microsoft isn’t merely going to forget the expertise learned from development of the recently canceled Courier project–he even noted that there are “a lot of different tablet projects that we’re pursuing,” which is a loaded comment, indicating that MS isn’t ready to surrender dominance of a whole new paradigm in computing to Apple (or even Android-based machines, and maybe even a WebOS-powered tablet coming from new Palm owners HP). In other words: Expect MS to blend all its OS skills and shove them into a tablet PC sooner rather than later. And don’t expect Bill to give up on his love of pen-based computing either.


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