Take a Tablet…

…and provide engineering professionals with a new level of productivity and creativity.

by Dr. Joel Orr

I subscribe to Doug Kaye’s ITConversations (www.itconversations.com); he conducts excellent interviews with a wide variety of people. The interviews are great because of his choices and his gentle style. Doug also posts audio from some conferences, and I recently listened to a presentation on human nature by Malcolm Gladwell, the New Yorker writer who wrote The Tipping Point (find it at http://www.itconversations.com/shows/detail230.html).

Speaking at Bob Metcalfe’s Pop!Tech 2004, Gladwell beautifully makes a point that resonates with Clay Christensen’s famous caution against listening to your customers (The Innovator’s Dilemma; The Innovator’s Solution). It won’t spoil the talk if I tell you that he recounts in fascinating detail the story of the Herman Miller Aeron office chair—the most successful product in the company’s history. To HM’s credit, after years (years!) of feedback from focus groups and different market segments to the effect that the chair’s ugliness was unredeemably profound, they put it on the market anyway, because they believed in the designer and his design. Within two years, the market changed its mind; the chair became a runaway bestseller.

In the early ’90’s, there were attempts to produce a slate-form-factor PC; they were spectacular failures, in terms of VC dollars and hype-vs.-reality contrast. I won’t rehash all the post-mortem discussions here; I think there is general agreement that the technology just wasn’t up to the vision at the time. (The buzz-phrase was “pen-based computing.”)

Fast-forward to a couple of years ago. The tablet PC hits the market in 2002, and—though few are ready to call it a marketing failure—was not the instant hit that Microsoft and the hardware manufacturers hoped for. In fact, Computerworld Editor-in-Chief Maryfran Johnson said, in a 2002 article commenting on the ho-hum response 1,150 laptop users had had to tablets, “The overpriced Tablet PC is destined to join the long list of Inspector Gadget technologies searching in vain for market success…. In the meantime, I've got another meeting to attend. Better grab that 89-cent pad of paper and take a few notes.”

I am, by any measure, on the geeky side of computer users. I use my computer for everything, all the time. And frankly, I really didn’t think much of the tablet PC when it came out.

But there are a couple of scenarios in which I’ve noticed I’m reluctant to use my notebook. And the simple matter of the different form factor would make a tablet acceptable to me in those circumstances: Meetings—especially with consulting clients; and coach airplane seats.

In a meeting, taking notes with a keyboard of any kind carries a strong stigma: Anyone who types is a clerical person. On an airplane, anyone who is 6’ 1” and 255 lbs. struggles with a laptop in almost any seat on the plane.

After using a PDA in both circumstances, I’ve come to the conclusion that a large-screen PDA would be a welcome change; especially if it, in fact, had my hard drive and all my stuff in it.

A couple of applications I’ve been using a lot lately have also made me long for a pen-based interface: MindJet’s MindManager and Microsoft OneNote. Both are intrinsically graphical, with full text manipulation built-in. But neither works very well with a digitizer tablet plugged into a PC. They beg for a tablet PC.

I’ve been begging for a tablet, too. But I think all the tablet manufacturers with whom I’ve been attempting to correspond have lost heart; only a couple out of a dozen even bothered to answer my emails about my “tablets for engineers” research, even though I told them that we (Cyon Research Corporation) are a leading Web-based media outlet for engineers.

I think we have an Aeron chair on our hands, as far as the engineering community goes.

And here’s a cautionary tale: In 1987, Apple invited me out for a consulting engagement. Their question was: Would the Macintosh be of interest to engineers? As a Mac user at the time, and having been a consultant to the engineering community for 13 years at that point, my answer was an enthusiastic “yes!” I backed up my recommendation with all manner of statistics and anecdotes about the work habits of engineers.

Alas, as I later learned from John Sculley (Apple CEO at the time), the market manager for engineering—who also had desktop publishing—said it wasn’t worth going after the engineering market; their hands would be full with desktop publishing. And besides, he said, the Mac’s screen was far too small for CAD.

Well, yes, I pointed out, the screen is small for CAD; but CAD represents perhaps 18% of what an engineer does (numerous citations given). For everything else, the WYSIWIG user interface would be a delight, and would be warmly embraced by engineers. (Remember, this was 1987, and the first usable Windows, 3.1, did not come out until 1992. So the point of comparison was DOS 3.3.)

But my arguments fell on deaf ears. So today, while many engineers experience occasional twinges of Mac envy, very few of them own one. The engineering desktop is owned by Windows. >

However, I think the engineering meeting, and the engineering notebook, can still be owned by the tablet PC—today’s tablet PC, not some superior future version. I think the manufacturers need to learn a lesson from Herman Miller, and press in, despite what focus groups and early initial sales figures may seem to be saying. I think the apparently small differences between a tablet and a notebook are actually huge, and can provide engineering professionals with a whole new level of productivity and creativity.

And in the near future, better batteries and displays and faster chips could have the tablet do to the notebook what the notebook is doing to the desktop: Replace it. >

Or not. The manufacturers could simply let the current generation die, as the pen-based machines of the early nineties did (deservedly). And we’ll all have to wait around another five years until the idea is revived again.

Maybe by Apple, this time.

Dr. Joel Orr is Chief Visionary and VP of Cyon Research Corporation, and Senior Editor of ENGINEERING AUTOMATION REPORT . He can be reached at joel.orr@cyonresearch.com