Hey kids, let’s go to Dubuque!

When you travel somewhere, especially somewhere new, somewhere eclectic – do you ever buy your airline ticket, hop on the plane, and eagerly look forward to planning your activities once you arrive?

No. No, you don’t. You plan a trip, buy tickets, get everything lined up long before you go. It’s been my contention for some time that buying a new computing device – smartphone, tablet/slate or other, is just like taking a trip. Also, unlike years ago where when we bought a computer, it was guaranteed to come with Windows and run all the old apps that for some reason we hang on to like hoarders on a TV show, today’s new devices come with a Baskin-Robbins assortment of operating systems – none of which will run Windows applications as-is (and that’s fine, as long as enough other apps are actually available for the device being considered).

With all due respect to the people of Dubuque, I call the act of buying a device without regard to how you’ll actually use it, “taking a trip to Dubuque“. I have been to Dubuque once, briefly while moving cross-country, but I can’t speak with authority as to the activities that avail themselves there (I’m sure there are some fun and interesting things to do). But having come from a similarly small town in Montana with a less catchy name, Dubuque works better as a destination that you’re going to want to plan for before you arrive, or you might be a little bored.

I was a fan of Microsoft’s Tablet PC platform when it first came on the scene – in fact my main computer at Microsoft for almost two years was a Motion Computing “slate” device (not a convertible, though I did order a Motion USB keyboard too). Unfortunately, my experience was that handwriting recognition, though handy, wasn’t perfect – and with my horrible handwriting, resulted in an archived database of my handwriting, not anything searchable or digitally usable. In essence, OneNote and a few drawing applications ( I didn’t have Photoshop, but surely it would be useful as well) were the only real applications that took advantage of the Tablet PC platform. That hasn’t changed much. Today the main reason why you’d buy a Tablet PC running Windows 7 is for pen input, not broad consumer scenarios (Motion Computing, which still makes great hardware has become soley focused on medical and services for exactly this reason). Though Windows 7 actually does have full multi-touch gesture support, most people don’t even know this, as witnessed during a recent webinar we had at work where people asked when Microsoft would introduce a version of Windows with touch support (they already do!) – and few applications make the most of it. I haven’t tried using Microsoft Office 2010 with a touch-focused PC, but I can’t imagine it being a great fit. Office, to date, is written to be driven via  a mouse (or a stylus, acting as a proxy-driven mouse). Touch requires a very different user interface design.

The iPad was successful from day 1 because it took advantage of the entire stable of iPhone applications, and simply doubled their resolution (to varying success), and used that to cantilever into motivating developers to build iPad optimized applications. No Android slate has established anywhere near the same market, most likely because of this aspect – when you get the device, what do you do with it? Sure. You’ll browse the web and check email. What else? How many consumers really want to pay $800+, plus data plans for a device that can just check email and browse the web? That’s not very viable. Today, HP announced new, pretty good looking all-in-one TouchSmart devices. Though one section of that article mentions them being consumer focused, the article ends with a fizzle, stating the systems are “designed with the ‘hospitality, retail, and health care’ industries in mind”. Yes, that’s right. Without a stable of consumer-focused multi-touch applications, devices like this, as great as they may sound at first glance, become just simple all-in-one PC’s for most, and touch-based only when damned into a career within a vertical industry with one or more in-house applications written just for touch, that they’ll run day in and day out until the device is retired.

It’s quite unfortunate how touch hasn’t taken off in Windows. ISVs don’t write apps because there aren’t enough touch-based Windows computers and no way to monetize to the ease and degree the Apple App Store has enabled, and yet people don’t buy touch-based Windows PCs for the same reason they don’t buy 3D TV’s – it’s a trip to Dubuque. Like most consumers, I’m not going to buy a ticket there until we’ve got some clear plans of what we’re going to do on the trip.

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