While it’s possible that Apple's hyped-beyond-belief tablet (now believed to be announcing in a January) will sport a stylus, I get the feeling that Steve Jobs & Co. believe that user interfaces have evolved beyond pen-based input. It’s yesterday's technology. Which is all the more reason why Microsoft's Courier is so intriguing. It bravely puts the pen front and center, with touch playing a supporting role. Is this kind of thinking just a stubborn attempt to keep Tablet PCs alive, or is it the future of work-and-play computing?
When I first saw the demo videos of the concept Courier in action, it was easy to see how a digital pen could complement touch. The Courier prototype has two (allegedly) 7-inch displays, side by side, held together by a hinge; you can write directly on the screen using digital ink. One of the supposed killer apps is called Infinite Journal. Similar to the Microsoft Office OneNote program found on today's tablets, this tool can store everything from Web pages to photos, all of which you can annotate. Should Courier be commercialized, Microsoft would almost certainly offer a touch-friendly keyboard, too. However, this device seems to be a statement that the pen is just a more natural way of entering information on a slate device.
The Courier has some other neat tricks up its sleeve. For instance, you can "tuck" items you want to drag from one screen to the other in the hinge area, which is used as a virtual pocket. To launch the browser, you perform a two-finger flick on the screen, and you can flip through the pages of your journal or agenda with a finger, just as if you were reading a book. Pressing and holding on the screen when you're working on a presentation launches your list of contacts, so you can start sharing content. But the digital pen is the star of the show; it's used for searching the Courier for a past file or idea, entering Web addresses, highlighting items, and adding notes. Plus, more creative types can use the device for intricate (and highly customized) sketches.
Based on our early reviews of Windows 7 convertibles such as the Lenovo ThinkPad X200 Tablet PC, we believe Microsoft has vastly improved handwriting recognition, and is still very interested in evolving the digital ink experience. In fact, ZDNet's Mary-Jo Foley reported this week that Courier will run a version of Windows 7, and that it's modeled on FranklinCovey's successful line of day planners. Her source went on to say that the original Tablet PCs “failed because the applications were not tailored to a tablet form factor." That's why Courier has its own user interface, instead of being slapped on top of a UI that has been dominated by keyboard- and mouse-based input.
With delivery rumored to be mid-2010, the Courier (or whatever it becomes) has the potential to make people rethink the notion that our fingers should be the preferred method of data entry in the touch computing era. A pen is faster—at least on a larger canvas—and one shouldn't underestimate the power one's own handwriting and sketches have when taking notes; it can be a better way of processing and personalizing information. In other words, don't write off the digital pen just yet.
Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP's online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark's SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on twitter.