2011 may be the year of the tablet, but as a segment it's still painfully immature. Our hands-on with ASUS' Eee Slate EP121 last week triggered the usual arguments, dismissing the 12.1-inch tablet out of hand because of its perceived "old" technology. Admittedly, there are plenty of points where the EP121 could fall short: ASUS reckon users will see up to 8hrs runtime, which seems hopelessly ambitious for a relatively slimline slate with a Core i5 processor, and the display was frustratingly glossy. Still, the dual-mode hybrid touchscreen is its crowning glory for those who understand that there's more to a stylus than most - Steve Jobs included - would have you believe.
While the EP121 will happily let you stab at Windows 7 with your finger - or two, since capacitive multitouch is supported - it'll also let you whip out the included active stylus and get far more precise. Art apps are the obvious beneficiary, with the Eee Slate turned into a self-contained Wacom Cintiq, but there's also digital handwriting recognition for a surprisingly accurate alternative to onscreen keyboards. Float the stylus nib above the screen and you can move the pointer without making a selection, for hover functionality; there's also pressure recognition, so the harder you sketch, the thicker the line.
Unfortunately, most users have only ever come across two types of touchscreen: the resistive panels common on pre-iPhone smartphones and the capacitive screens Apple's handset helped popularize. Active digitisers are something most people are unfamiliar with, so they associate a stylus with a dumb plastic toothpick, something that's most likely a compromise for undersized on-screen icons. Throw in the generally underwhelming experience of resistive touchscreens on commercial devices - in markets on self-checkout machines, for instance - and you can see how it could be boiled down to a two-player battle in which capacitive technology pulls ahead.
Microsoft isn't helping things with software, either. Devices with active digitisers - or hybrid pen/touch displays - generally run Windows, and the Microsoft OS still falls well short when it comes to tablet usability. It's been more than eight years since Windows XP Tablet Edition launched, and while the handwriting and speech recognition engines have improved behind the scenes, visible tablet accommodation to the end-user has barely evolved.
Ironically, Microsoft has had the answer - or at least a potentially significant part of it - under their nose all the time, in the shape of OneNote and the team responsible for it. Billed as a digital notetaking app (which supports searches of handwritten notes, among other things), OneNote is actually a great example of how Windows and stylus control can work together in a way far more intuitive and flexible than putting finger to screen.
For a while, with the Courier project, it seemed like the company had recognized its strengths and was set to take advantage of them. Rather than the "must do everything your desktop does" attitude that infects current Windows tablets - and leaves them mixing pen, finger, keyboard and mouse paradigms and failing at them all - Courier looked set to do one core set of skills very well, something that no other current tablet offered. Rather than ASUS' Eee Pad models, which bill themselves as ideal for content-creation as well as consumption and then deliver that by merely bolting on a physical keyboard, the active stylus would have allowed for precise digital handwriting and sketching - with pressure sensitivity, angle recognition and more.
No, perhaps it wouldn't be the best device to run World of Warcraft on, or to do your company spreadsheets, but Microsoft appeared to be finally saying that some things were best left to your desktop or notebook. Courier could have been another step on Microsoft's path to an Apple-style ecosystem of devices and services - all held together by its beloved cloud - and offering not just a facsimile of the iOS platform but a legitimate alternative based on something Steve Jobs refuses to countenance: that a stylus can still be a legitimate input option for a mobile device.
This isn't meant to be an eulogy to Courier, but nor is the stylus ready for its obituary. The iPad has made great strides in popularising the tablet segment, but it's also left Apple's rivals scrabbling to create me-too alternatives that offer buzzwords like "content creation" with little more than a half-hearted nod from the spec sheet. The irony is that Microsoft is probably in the best starting place to take advantage of that, and yet seems the most reluctant to use its position.
The EP121 is far from perfect, but it's also no iPad-clone and for that ASUS deserves some credit. The stylus-savvy will recognize it for its strengths and make up their own minds whether the hybrid display and Windows 7's naivety balance each other out. They won't have much in the way of choice, though; look at the tablets announced at CES 2011 this month, and you'll see the vast majority avoid the stylus like the plague, in preference to solely finger control. Unfortunately, until the tablet segment matures enough to countenance anything other than another would-be "iPad killer", the stylus will continue to get its unfair reputation.