Hardware & Software

Style, but No Stylus

Will iPads replace traditional tablets? Not without digital ink.

Less than 60 days after the iPad's April 3 launch, more than 2 million units had been sold. Application developers have been trampling each other to get new and adapted programs to the device. And the late-night talk show hosts can't seem to leave the thing alone: David Letterman actually licked his iPad on national television.

With such a splashy debut at his back, Apple CEO Steve Jobs might be forgiven for his recent hyperbolic declaration that the iPad would replace the laptop. Certainly anything is possible, but in higher education such a displacement seems unlikely. Without a keyboard, the iPad is simply unsuitable for, say, writing a term paper. And according to some college and university faculty members, the device doesn't even measure up in higher ed environs as a tablet.

Lyndasu Crowe, an associate professor at Darton College in Albany, GA, objects to even calling the iPad a tablet because it offers no native support for a stylus and digital ink. "That's what makes the tablet PC a compelling teaching tool--the ability to annotate, to write notes, to create diagrams, and just to draw on the screen," she says. "That's a teaching tool; the iPad is really more like a big iPod."

Digital ink, of course, is the technology that defined the first tablet PCs--it allows users to apply a stylus to a computer screen and write and draw as they would with a pen and paper. The technology typically combines a digitizer with the LCD screen, creating an electromagnetic field that can capture the movement of a dedicated stylus and record it.

It's probably true that Apple has effectively redefined the tablet category with a keyboardless touchscreen form factor that its competitors are rushing to emulate. But long before the advent of this new darling of the gizmo-smitten digerati, computer makers were providing laptops with swiveling and/or detachable touchscreens that supported a stylus/digital ink input option. Industry analysts at Gartner are now calling these devices "traditional tablets," to distinguish them from iPad-like devices, which they're calling "next-generation tablets." Gartner recently predicted that sales of all tablet devices will reach 10.5 million before the end of the year.

The Stylus Is Mightier…
Colleges and universities embraced the traditional tablet almost from its debut. Darton, for instance, began equipping its faculty with HP tc4200 tablet PCs back in 2006, as part of an HP Higher Education Technology for Teaching grant. Crowe wrote the grant. "We wanted to see what tablets could do in the hands of teachers," she says.

Not surprisingly, Darton faculty members found the tablets to be the most useful in subjects for which the keyboard is an inadequate input device, such as advanced mathematics and science. "You can't enter this stuff by typing it," Crowe says. "You really have to be able to write it in longhand."

Crowe, an M.D. who teaches anatomy and physiology, has been using traditional tablet devices for years to great effect, she says. "They haven't changed how I teach," she says, "but they've certainly changed how I present what I teach."

During a recent onstage interview at the annual D8 Conference with The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, Steve Jobs dismissed the stylus-driven interface as inefficient. "The minute you throw a stylus out, you have the precision of a finger," he said. Jobs was reportedly comparing stylus-as-mouse input to the touch of a human finger, and in that, he may have a point. But in higher education, the stylus has become essential, says Dave Berque, professor of computer science at DePauw University in Greencastle, IN.

"There are a lot of classes where the content of the course is hard to express with a keyboard," Berque says. "Molecules in a chemistry class, for instance, or graphs in an economics class, or characters in a Japanese language class, and even certain types of data structures in computer science classes. There are a number of disciplines where keyboard input is too awkward or impossible."

Berque and his students began using HP 2710p tablet PCs several years ago to take notes, solve problems, and share solutions. The school has continued to upgrade the devices regularly as part of its 1-to-1 computing program, and currently offers the multitouch HP 2740p tablet PC. "The tablets give us the best of both worlds," Berque says. "We haven't lost the keyboard; we've gained the stylus as a secondary input mode. We really need them both."

Berque is actually a big fan of the iPad, and owns one himself. But he's not ready to give up his traditional tablet as a teaching tool. "They're two different devices," he says. "It's actually confusing to call them both tablets."

He also disagrees with Jobs' notion of the precision of a finger. "The finger is a perfectly good thing for selecting content, but if you're trying to input content--trying to draw a diagram, for example--there's a huge difference," he says. "You just don't get the same accuracy with the fingertip."

Demonstration, Collaboration, Annotation
Trine University in Angola, IN, just completed its fourth year working with traditional tablet PCs. The school purchased 100 Toshiba tablets in the summer of 2006, then 50 more a year later. In 2008, a number of HP tablets were added to the mix through an educational grant. Today, all of Trine's faculty members are equipped with traditional tablet PCs.

"The use of the stylus is more prevalent by far here than touchscreen input on these devices," says Michelle Dunn, Trine's CIO. "The digital ink really is essential."

Although the traditional tablets helped to provide a critical input technology for Trine faculty, because of the limited screen space of a laptop, the school found it necessary to add interactive whiteboards as an alternative to the tablet in math and science courses for classroom demonstrations.

Trine also has experimented with classroom initiatives that put traditional tablet PCs into the hands of faculty and students, Dunn says, primarily to foster collaboration. "It really worked," she says. "It's just easier to collaborate on one tablet than on one laptop. The screen swivels so the students can gather around and work together on one machine. And the stylus is easier to share than a mouse."

Students and faculty at Trine also found that brainstorming sessions were more productive with a stylus and digital ink, which allows users to draw and diagram.

Digital ink also enhances Trine's use of DyKnow Vision interactive educational software, Dunn says. For example, the combination of the tablets and the software allows faculty to annotate a PowerPoint presentation, while students can annotate the presentation they receive wirelessly on their laptops and create their own collaboration space.

Dunn agrees that, without support for digital ink, it's unlikely that next-gen tablets will replace traditional tablets. "The tablets combine two types of input: keyboard and stylus. That has proved, here at least, to be a very useful combination. Why would we give up both to replace them with iPads, which don't support either one?"

Third-Party Stylus Support
Apple's anti-stylus position remains steadfast, but that hasn't stopped third-party providers from developing aftermarket pen-input products. Demand for a stylus for the iPhone--and Apple's refusal to provide one--sparked the initial development of these products, some of which were adapted very quickly for the iPad. The Styloid (from RadTech), the Penultimate (Cocoa Box Design), and the Pogo Sketch (Ten One Design) are among the leading stylus products aimed at iPad users. There's even a widely circulated DIY trick for creating a crude iPad stylus with a pen with a flat cap, a piece of aluminum foil, and a few strips of Scotch tape.

Resources

Gartner

HP tablet PCs

iPad

Penultimate

Pogo Sketch

Styloid

Toshiba tablets

Artists using one of the third-party stylus and software combinations--the Pogo and the Autodesk SketchBook Pro application for the iPad--have posted some impressive YouTube demos. But overall the reviews of these devices on the iPad have been lukewarm. The lines they create on the screen are generally quite thick, they're not very responsive or pressure sensitive, and they're not designed to allow users to write naturally--you can't lay your hand down on the screen.

Berque took the Pogo Sketch stylus, along with some of the supporting software, for an early test drive, and found it wanting.

"This isn't true digital ink," he says. "If you try them out, you'll find that they're very rough. You can use them to circle something, but you can't use them easily to write in longhand, to sketch a chemistry module, or to draw a kanji character with anything near the precision you get on a tablet PC."

Berque points out that digital ink is not merely a mouse replacement, "but a specific technology designed for a high-end inking experience. The tablet PC was designed from the ground up to be a pen-based device. The iPad wasn't. In fact, it was designed specifically not to use a pen. What you're seeing with these aftermarket devices is a response to a demand for a pen for the iPad. But there's just no substitute for a true tablet PC with inking designed into the device."

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