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March 2001
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Yellow Pads, Past & Future

by Anthony Paonita

Yellow Pads, Past and Future THE information superhighway is littered with the carcasses of computer "tablets." Does anyone remember the Newton or the Cross Pad? Handwriting! Bah humbug.

Some people -- expert typists, of course -- wonder why anyone would bother. In most cases, typing is faster. In fact, hacker movies make typing even seem cool. You know the drill: A young person in black, about to save the world from imminent nuclear disaster perpetrated by evil computer geniuses, tap-tap-taps away on a computer keyboard.

Often, though, typing just isn't practical. Mobile professionals need a computing device that they can whip out, scribble something, and then put the thing away again. Keyboards only make sense for larger devices that stay in place.

But smaller computers, by necessity, have fewer features. It's this dilemma that has given computer makers and programmers fits -- what can they throw out? And, as with anything, the focus and feature sets that emerge from these deliberations make or break the products.

(Not Necessarily) Included

Palm, Inc.

Palm VIIx -- $399 (Circle no. 271)

8 MB RAM, good for 10,000 addresses

Features: wireless Internet connectivity (e-mail and "clipped" Web), usual Palm OS applications

* * * *

Hewlett-Packard Co.

Jornada 548 -- $499 (Circle no. 272)

Pocket PC with 32 MB RAM

Features: Wireless e-mail, Web connectivity; synchs with PCs, Pocket Word, Excel applications, others

* * * *

Aqcess Technologies Inc.

Qbe Vivo -- From $2599 (Circle no. 273)

64-320 MB RAM, P

Features: Celeron or Pentium III processor, Ethernet, wireless capability, 10.4" touch-screen, 56K modem

* * * *

IBM Corp.

ThinkPad TransNote--from about $3000 (Circle no. 274)

Portfolio notebook computer

Features: Mobile Pentium III, leather or leatherette portfolio, "ThinkScribe" digital notepad and pen

Among the first manufacturers to try "tablet computing" was Apple Computer Inc., with its ill-fated Newton. The poor thing -- it tried to do so much. Like its maker often is, Newton was too ambitious.

Handwriting proved to be difficult thing to tame. Computers, up until not long ago, could only see handwriting as a picture. So if you scrawled virtual pages of notes during a meeting, you couldn't use a word processing program to find key words and phrases, much less edit them later.

The original Palm Pilot's designers learned their lesson. Instead of forcing a not-so-intelligent machine to understand our writing, they'd have people meet the machine halfway. So the Palm (and its progeny) created a modified alphabet, called Graffiti. (And you don't even have to use that, you can tap on a miniaturized keyboard to input, as well.)

But the genius of the Palm isn't only in the way you input information; Palm understood that when people thought of a small handheld device, they didn't really want to carry around a mini-version of their desktop computer. People saw the Palm (and, really, almost any other similar device in the market) as an adjunct, something that worked with the base station. Its reduced feature set was just fine.

Microsoft hates to see other computing devices own a field, so it's trying again with its Pocket PC operating system. The previous incarnation, Windows CE or "wince," as it was popularly known, was not a big success. I tried an HP Jornada with the new Pocket PC operating system and still came away with the feeling that it's trying to do too much in too small a device. Still, its software package -- shrunken versions of Internet Explorer, Word and Excel, for example -- is impressive, and offer good "synching" integration with Windows PCs.

Microsoft still thinks, however, that people want full-featured PCs to carry around, not just adjuncts. So at last November's COMDEX in Las Vegas, the company introduced its "Tablet PC" initiative. Tablet PC, judging by the prototypes and Microsoft's press releases, does everything a PC does, but would let you scribble on it.

Alexandra Loeb, general manager of the Tablet PC project, says that "the initial success of the Tablet PC is not dependent on 'perfect' handwriting recognition. We see great value in treating 'ink as ink'--allowing people to revise, edit, and repurpose their handwritten notes after they've written them on the computer screen using the stylus."

Well, Microsoft, get in line. The new devices won't be ready until next year anyway. But I'm sure Microsoft engineers have the Qbe in the back of their mind. It's a full-featured PC, just like the tablet PC. The Qbe, made by Aqcess Technologies, has a a pretty large 13.3-inch color screen and was about the size of a two-inch thick stack of legal paper.

It's heavier than a big legal pad, though, and feels unwieldy. At around $2,600, it costs about the same as a upper-medium range laptop. We had one here for a while at the Law Technology News test lab (if you believe we have a lab, I have a bridge to sell you) and after playing around a bit, we sent it back without much remorse.


A recent arrival may be closer to the Holy Grail of tablet computing: A few weeks ago, couple of charming IBM guys came over to show off their new ThinkPad TransNote portfolio computer.

We were openly impressed. One look, and LTN editor Monica Bay immediately gushed, "Way kewl!" and included the TransNote in her live Webcast from Legal Tech New York. (A far cry from our normal poker faces during vendor dog-and-pony shows.)

The TransNote comes packed into a "pleather" portfolio (it's sturdier than leather, which you can order if you are purist). One side contains the computer; on the other side, what looks and acts like a normal yellow legal pad.

But everything you draw on the yellow pad gets saved as a .pdf file (Adobe, Inc.'s portable document format, used in Acrobat files).

I signed my name, drew a map to my house, pretended to jot a note to a colleague. My name and map were saved as files, and the note became an e-mail attachment.

You could keep all your notes. And when you're tired of taking notes on a pad, you just open up the computer and pretend as though it's just a normal ThinkPad, albeit one with an unusually flexible screen that tilts and bends.

It's bigger than a Palm, to be sure. But for once, such a device seems genuinely useful.

I can't wait to see the TransNote and the Microsoft Tablet PC duke it out in the marketplace.

Popcorn, anyone?

Anthony Paonita is a senior editor of The American Lawyer.


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