Tablet Computing’s Applications For Journalism

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By: Howard I. Finberg

Digital Output Column

I want one of those communication pads or tablets you see on some of those Star Trek shows. That’s my idea of personal computing: small, lightweight, and no keyboard.

Well, beam me up, Scotty — we finally are getting closer to this form of computing. Later this year, Microsoft Corp. and its partners will start pushing their new vision of mobile computing. Called the TabletPC, it is about the size of an 81/2-by-11-inch pad of paper and runs a version of the Windows XP operating system. TabletPC is two machines in one, which gives it some interesting aspects: It is still a personal computer (PC), but it has a touch screen and can really read your handwriting. Of course, combination devices are tricky, at best. How well this combination works remains to be seen.

The system’s most interesting characteristic is its handwriting recognition. At February’s DEMO conference in Phoenix, I briefly tested the TabletPC’s recognition abilities. The system was able to convert my notes into digital text, which could be merged into a Microsoft Word or other text document. The potential for reporters to digitally capture notes that can be incorporated into a story is exciting. These “digital notes” also can be searched in the same way you can search a text file on your PC. I’ll admit that I used my “nice handwriting” for the test. A better test will be when these machines are used for note-taking under deadline pressure.

The TabletPCs, which are being built by a variety of hardware vendors, come with built-in wireless connectivity. Assuming there’s a wireless-network connection point, it is easy to imagine a reporter filing digital notes almost instantaneously without worrying about finding a phone line.

What’s disappointing is the TabletPC’s weight. Partly because of its keyboard and partly because of its glass-based, liquid-crystal-display screen, it still feels like a four-pound laptop PC. Looking into the future, Microsoft has great hopes for speech recognition for these devices. However, speech-to-text has always been an elusive goal. If it can get speech recognition to work, then maybe the keyboard will disappear or at least shrink.

Newspaper information-technology managers would be well-advised to make sure to have backup storage policies for reporters’ TabletPCs. You also need to make sure you understand the legal and other issues when it comes to keeping reporters’ notes in your state. And buy some more printers — I can guarantee that, even with “digital ink,” reporters will print out their notes. No one really trusts computers to safeguard anything.

Going a step further in this form of computing is IBM, which thinks it is time to separate the computer’s “interface” from its processing power. It wants to get rid of keyboards and monitors. In the past, attempts have resulted in devices that have been a series of compromises. For examples, a laptop is merely a smaller PC, and a personal digital assistant (PDA) is simply a PC without the processing or storage power.

IBM’s Meta Pad prototype, which weighs nine ounces, is about the size of an inch-thick stack of index cards. Yes, that’s small! This mite of a PC has only a processor, a hard drive, memory, and a docking connector. The connector allows the Meta Pad to be inserted into a number of different computer-hardware modules, such as a PDA or a desktop PC, enabling the Meta Pad to play different roles. The hard drive inside the prototype had five gigabytes of data storage. This might be a tool that could greatly assist the mobile journalist at a reduced cost of ownership for a newspaper.

Instead of lugging a specific computing device, a reporter could slip the Meta Pad into any number of docking stations and have a functional computer. Dock with a keyboard and monitor, and you have a desktop; use a PDA as the interface, but with all of your files on the Meta Pad.

These devices — the TabletPC and the Meta Pad — are aimed at the mobile worker, the journalist or salesperson in the field. They will change the way we gather news and information on the run.

How consumers read that news and information is also changing. Among notable efforts getting closer to reality are those by Roger Fidler of Kent State University. Fidler has been pursuing the tablet dream for more than 20 years. His recent efforts are focused on developing the user interface and templates for an electronic newspaper edition.

Fidler’s idea is to blend the “traditional page-based format used for printed editions with attributes common to news Web sites, such as hyperlinks and multimedia.” Ideally, this edition of the paper would be read on a TabletPC or another mobile appliance with large portrait-oriented displays. The curtain will not rise on his vision until September, according to Fidler.

“Our efforts have focused on the development of a graphically rich, electronic environment for the presentation of newspaper content,” Fidler said in an e-mail interview. “Our goals are to enhance the newspaper reading experience and to help make newspapers more compelling in the digital age. We’re also concerned about preserving each newspaper’s brand identity.”

Whether for consumer or producer, the potential of these devices is intriguing.

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