Hi Joe, Bye Moe

Hi Joe, Bye Moe

I’ve now had my new computer, Joe, three full months, plenty of time for bonding. My old computer Moe is pushing five years old. Here’s a family portrait:

Joe & Moe on desk

Joe is just the next generation on Moe. They’re both slates as you can see, from Motion Computing. Moe was my favorite computer of all time, and Joe is just better yet. Since a sweet computer is one of the three pillars of Pete’s happiness (and the other two are also doing very well right now) I’m feeling quite cheery.

Prior to Moe I was what you would call an "advanced keyboarder," one of those guys with a bevy of speedy shortcuts and macros, all second nature. I loved my keyboard; I still love keyboards. But I, literally, don’t use them anymore, except for Spanish. I haven’t for the last five years. And when I went shopping for Joe, I didn’t even consider buying anything except a fast slate. That’s not a common trait — which has always surprised me, I would think more people would love them. In fact I’m in airports quite a bit, and I never see slates. Believe me, I would notice. So I thought people might be interested in hearing why I prefer this kind of computing.

I first fell in love with the idea of slates years ago at a KM convention, back then Microsoft still believed that slates (not convertible tablets, real slates) would be the Big New Thing. One of their top people was there, and gave an excellent speech. He held a thin, lightweight NEC slate in his hand the whole time, waving it around; he showed off the things he could do with a pen, talked about "living in OneNote." I bought the vision right then, hook line and sinker. When Pedro finally got old (my old IBM ThinkPad) I researched slates and bought the best.

There was a learning curve, of course. You can do anything on a slate that you can on a keyboarded computer, but it’s all done different. The biggest thing, really, is that everyday actions like delete, backspace, copy etc. get done with gestures. Personally, I think this is the reason Microsoft’s vision didn’t materialize. You have to personally invent some gestures that work for your personal style. It’s not hard, but you can’t really fly until they become automatic. If you think about it though, it’s exactly the same with a keyboard, except that you learned those automatic motions so long ago you can’t remember.

When the learning curve is behind you, what you get is a whole different feel. Friends sometimes ask me if I would recommend they try a tablet. I would never say to anyone I liked, "yes, get one, they’re better." Because they aren’t. But they are very different. For me, it’s like the difference between waxed cross-country skis, and fishscale skis. Neither is better than the other, it’s all just pros and cons, depending on snow conditions. For speed, point A to point B, an experienced skier can do well on either. But for sex appeal, it isn’t even close. The perfect wax, on the perfect day — for the purist, that’s what skiing is. You can probably map this analogy onto your own sport. For driving, I like a manual transmission, I think it’s just more fun. But automatics work great, and in a strange rental car, in a strange city, I’m grateful for them. Some things really are just personal preference.

That’s how it is with pen versus keyboard. The pen is playful, colorful, frictionless, fast. The keyboard is efficient, digital, gridlike, clicky. Both work good. In fact, both are highly satisfying in their way. But for me (is this the definition of a geek?) there can be a real thrill to a beautiful computer, on a perfect day. And on that perfect computing day, when I’m really flying, I have a pen in my hand.

Are there times a keyboard works better? For sure. I still grab a keyboard when I want to type in Spanish, since it’s simple and reliable. A keyboard has no mind of its own to get confused. I also need a keyboard to do any real writing in a crowded place with other people, like when traveling with Laura and working in motel rooms. Using Dragon on a slate (voice recognition, as I am now) is pure freedom, because the pen is such a fluid tool for cursoring and selecting. It’s just voice, eyes, and hand. It’s nice. But it doesn’t work in the wind, and it doesn’t work in waiting rooms. It needs quiet, and privacy.

Bear in mind though, I don’t use Dragon except for serious writing — full sentences, full paragraphs. More than half the time I just write on the screen, using the same handwriting recognition that comes on any Tablet PC. It works great, it’s accurate, I actually prefer it to voice recognition for simple searching, filling in a spreadsheet, jotting a few notes in Word, or making a few edits. So I’d say I’m 50% or more slate-and-pen-only, no headset.

With the exception of Spanish, I probably use a keyboard 2-3 times a year. That’s been a surprise for me. I didn’t realize there would be this feeling of all-one, or all-the-other. Once you have a pen in your hand, you don’t feel like typing. When you’re typing, it’s awkward taking your hands off the keyboard, and picking up a pen. This is the reason I think that convertible tablets — the most common kind now — are really a bastard child, not fish nor fowl, more harm than good. I think they drained away much of the energy which would have been there for tablets otherwise. Either be a tablet, or be a notebook, but don’t be both.

There’s one more thing. That presenter from Microsoft, years ago, he described a feeling of "living in OneNote." I wasn’t sure what he was talking about then; I sure know, now. OneNote is nothing fancy, it’s just a nice nice way to organize screenshots and clippings of text, while you work on projects. But after awhile, it becomes plain indispensable. I’m "in OneNote" on and off, all day, every day I’m working. It’s nothing but the ability to slap a bunch of interesting stuff onto a blank sheet, while highlighting, circling, drawing arrows, and jotting quick thoughts in your own handwriting. And it requires a pen. They say it doesn’t, but for what I’m talking about, they’re wrong.

I know that simple notetaking doesn’t seem very glamorous. But if I’m ever on somebody else’s computer and trying to get something done, it feels like I’m stumbling along with both wrists tied together. Again and again there will be some little thing to save, and no easy way to save it. I mean, I was good at saving stuff in the days before OneNote, I know how to do it. But it’s not the same. I’m surprising myself right now, just saying this — but the ability to clip and annotate a lot of stuff, easily and quickly, with a pen — that’s actually the one thing that would make it impossible for me to go back to a keyboard, if I ever wanted to.

Moe & Joe-03

2 Responses to “Hi Joe, Bye Moe”

  1. August 3rd, 2010 | 3:55 pm

    [...] screens and digitizer pens. This doesn’t sound like a day-and-night difference, but it is. In February I wrote about the pros and cons of pen versus keyboard. There’s every bit as wide a chasm between [...]

  2. Sally Blue
    January 16th, 2011 | 5:00 pm

    This is a fantastic blog-entry!

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