Friday, May 28, 2010

Oh, Microsoft...

I haven't written much over the past few years.

Part of it was just the busy-ness of life: finding a job, moving overseas, working in a foreign culture at a new school that was still establishing itself in every way.

But part of it also, was a general and ill-defined discouragement about the stagnant state of the Tablet PC ecosystem.

That discouragement still stands, but it is no longer so ill-defined. In fact, it clearly has a source now: Microsoft. And in addition to discouragement, it has become anger and frustration with Microsoft as the target.

Over the near decade of the existence of the Tablet PC, I have watched people come to see the power and potential that digital ink brings to the world of computers, especially in education. And then, I've watched many of these same people (and companies--remember Agilix's GoBinder?) quit the platform.

As has happened so often with new technologies, the first truly workable version is not easy to use. It happened with automobiles and planes. It happened with publishing tools. It happened generally with computers and operating systems. In each of these cases, the early days required special expertise to use the equipment. But over time in each of these cases, the technology improved to the point that almost anyone could use it.

Not so Tablet PCs. While earlier efforts clearly failed, Microsoft actually got it fairly right with Windows XP Tabled PC edition, at least by the standards of early days of technology. It worked. It brought something really new and powerful to the world.

And then they abandoned it.

Oh, not completely. They rolled it into Vista and made some minor improvements. Then they improved things slightly again with Windows 7. But these refinements were minor, half-hearted, and have not advanced the usability of the platform in any significant way.

Along the way, they simply dropped so many of those things that could have furthered the platform or would have fostered outside development that they effectively abandoned it.

They deny it, of course. In a future post I'll present a brief email exchange I had with Frank Shaw, a vice president of communications at Microsoft. He argues that the very act of rolling the Tablet PC version into the OS shows how committed they are to it. But I find that his reassurances belie the reality.

Today, if you say "tablet computer" everyone hears "iPad" and many seem to think Apple invented the form. Almost every time you read about Tablet PCs in the mainstream tech press, you'll find the word "failed" associated with it. Reading on a tablet device? Didn't Amazon invent that?

Microsoft was nearly a decade ahead of Apple in development of a tablet format computer. And as anything more than a media consumption device, they are still ahead of the iPad and the many soon-to-arrive Android devices. But what, really, have they done to make the platform more accessible to users AS TABLET DEVICES in that time? Nothing.

Microsoft Reader was an early entry in the e-reader space, and in many ways is still superior to the offerings of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and others. They had an excellent reading experience on tablet devices in 2003. They had a functional, albeit rudimentary, ink annotating capability back then. They even had a cursory distribution mechanism in place. But where is it today? It hasn't been updated since 2006. They dropped support for the Word add-in that let users create their own Reader files with Office XP, though it could be made to work in Word 2000.

Early on, they had games and power toys developed for the Tablet PC. Then they not only created nothing new for the Vista version, they stripped out some of the apps when they updated what they had. And since then? Nothing.

The last MSDN article on inking? 2007. The Tablet PC developer site? Gone. Well, they claim they've rolled it into their mobile development site, but I defy anyone to find anything new about digital ink or the use of the pen there. It's all about touch, phone and embedded now. Most of the articles that do touch on Tablet PCs deal with the XP edition, and none deal with Windows 7.

I still believe in the platform and the power that it brings. I can even demonstrate it to others such that they see it, too. One of my colleagues generally won't use her school provided Tablet PC, preferring her Mac for almost all of her work. Her (very valid) argument is that with her Mac she can just get her work done. She acknowledges that the Tablet PCs have more power, but they have less usability. Yet she has asked me to help her learn to use DyKnow on her Tablet PC in her classroom because of the tremendous power it brings there.

If a devoted Mac user sees this why can't Microsoft? And why don't they do anything about it?

Saturday, March 1, 2008

A Bit Personal...

This post was originally written shortly after Vermont Academy began a significant downsizing process, and the IT department was heavily hit in the first round, including the elimination of the IT Director position altogether...

As I have begun exploring what the job market holds, one of the things I needed to do was to write a personal statement that expressed my philosophy of the relationship between technology and education. I am posting it here:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,…”

These lines from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities aptly describe the extreme perceptions of the role that technology plays in education. To some it is a silver bullet that will kill drudgery in the classroom, a panacea for lack of engagement that is able to reach even the most distracted and apathetic student! To others it is a scourge, bringing nothing of value and grossly adding to the swarm of distractions already buzzing around our students, keeping them from even pretending to do productive work! I doubt that there is an educator around who hasn’t toyed with one of these opinions, if not with both.

Certainly we’ve all heard them expressed in many different ways. Advocates of the latest techno-gimmick for education often spout what sounds like late-night infomercial shtick: “Just buy X and never worry about Y again! Act now and we’ll throw in the Ginzu knives for FREE!” “Virtual worlds, simulations (read: games), interactive educational software, online courses, Web 2.0, etc. will revolutionize education! This is the way this generation learns!”

Yet the media are full of stories of college professors who ban computers and cell phones from their classes because students are shopping, IMing, watching stock portfolios, and gaming rather than attending to the lesson at hand. Some colleges struggle with low attendance since many students would prefer to listen to the podcast of the lecture or discussion at a later point than engage in the classroom. Some high schools have dropped their one-to-one computer initiatives altogether because they saw no benefits, only costs.

So what is technology’s role in the classroom? Boon or bane? White knight or Mongol invader? Savior or demon?

The answer, I believe, is “none of the above.”

Education is not about technology. It never was and it certainly hasn’t become so since the advent of the personal computer. Education is about people in relationship. Teachers and students. Mentors and disciples. Co-explorers of new ideas. It is about people bridging gaps. Gaps in communication. Gaps in interest and involvement. Gaps in knowledge. Great teachers can teach well even without a whiteboard or a number two pencil or a computer or the Internet.

So why have technology in the classroom at all? Well, why do we have whiteboards? Why do we have videos? Why do we have libraries? We have them because, properly used, they are tools that can help any teacher teach better and any student learn better. But each of these things also can be used to other ends than education: entertainment, busy work, gossiping with friends. As with these other things, so with technology. The tool can be used for good or ill. The challenge is in defining and enacting “proper use.”

There is no one size fits all answer to this challenge. Just as every educator is different, and every student is different, the role of technology in helping them to build relationship and bridge gaps will be different. I believe that the role of the technologist is to help each educator and each school find the right roles for technology for them, for their styles of teaching, and for their particular school culture.

Good academic technologists must know the full breadth of possibilities that technology brings to the classroom. They must understand the educators with whom they are working and the culture of their school. Likewise, they must grasp the culture of the students who attend their school, and the needs of the parents of those students. They also must recognize the risks and shortcomings of technology, especially in the hands of students, and develop ways to deal well with these. And they themselves must be able to teach in a way that is encouraging and enlightening rather than demeaning or intimidating.

Only when he or she does these things can the academic technologist properly work with a teacher to find the appropriate roles (if any!) for technology in his or her classroom, and with all of the various other constituent groups to determine and implement the technologies that are appropriate for the entire school community.

My goal as a technologist in education is to implement this philosophy fully. While I am an enthusiastic proponent of advanced technology, especially Tablet PCs, I recognize that a particular type of technology is not always the one right or best solution—or even a proper solution at all. Both on the academic and administrative sides of education, I try to work with the team to examine each opportunity or need individually and explore the whole continuum of possible solutions so that the most appropriate decision regarding technology can be made by all those concerned.

Only when we are successful in this work together can we realize the true potential benefits of technology while keeping at bay the potential costs. This is how I try to make it “the best of times” when it comes to technology in education.

Friday, February 8, 2008

There are two upcoming Tablet PC-in-education workshops that I know have had significant impacts on educators who have attended in past years. I believe that both do good work furthering the reach of Tablet PCs in education with sensible realism, not with the breathless hyperbole (from both directions!) that so often accompanies discussions of technology in education.

The first is the third annual Workshop on the Impact of Pen-based Technology on Education (WIPTE), a two day conference held at Purdue University. The conference brings together in one place research papers, posters and, new this year, video presentations of real-world examples of Tablet PCs and other pen-based technology tools in use in the classroom. Study environments cover the gamut from Pre-K, through K-12 and higher education. The conference dates this year are October 15 and 16. Schools or individuals that might be interested in submitting a paper, poster or video are encouraged to get the appropriate calls now, as the submission process will open shortly and must be completed by June 16. More details, including the calls for papers, posters and videos, can be obtained at

The second event is Hunterdon Central's Tablet PC Academy, hosted by the Hunterdon Central School District in New Jersey. Hunterdon has 250 teachers using Tablet PCs and the supporting technology on a daily basis and has seen significant results from their program. To quote Rob Mancabelli, Director of IS for the disctrict, "The academy tries to capture best practices for teachers who want to use tablets in instruction or technology personnel/administrators who want to know how to build and support a program." The Academy will be held twice, on July 15-17 and again on July 22-24. More details are available at

By means of full disclosure, I am a member of the organizing committee for WIPTE. I have no relationship with Hunterdon's Tablet PC Academy other than being a long time admirer of the work that Rob and his folks have done. Please feel free to contact me if I can provide you with any further information. You can post a comment here or send to my email address, which can be found on the WIPTE web site.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Whither print?

I just reread a not-so-recent posting on about the demise of the print edition of that venerable tech magazine. It is a short article, worth the read even for those not into tech specifically. Ed Foster writes about his mixed feelings regarding the cessation of a hard copy edition of the magazine as it moved to a web-only existence.

I have to confess that I share his ambivalence about the future of "dead tree" editions of things. I love curling up with a good book. I adore the smell of a used book store and the feel of a quality edition of old favorites. You can take a paperback book camping and not worry about battery life. Or weight. A room lined with full bookshelves is a beautiful thing. There are many things I also like about print magazines, not the least of which is their linearity or at least their limited options for jumping around.

Sometimes clicking around links on web pages makes me wonder if I'll ever find my way back to something I wanted to read but saw in passing on the way somewhere else. My desktop regularly gets overwhelmed with links to these pages that I drop there "temporarily" so i can get back to them. At one point, I had created a half dozen desktop folders at different times to hold these "must read" links that I never seemed to find the time to get back to but had to get off my desktop.

It appears that many, many people agree with me that print is a terrific medium. I've heard the comment "I don't like reading on a computer screen" so many times I've lost count. Not just from adults, either, but even from a surprising number of students.

But if this sentiment is really so ubiquitous, why are print magazines getting smaller and smaller? Or moving strictly to the web like Infoworld? Why are newspapers losing readership and advertising dollars--the only two sources of revenue they have to keep going?

Is this a trend merely of the news sites, whose content must be fresh and constantly changing? Their need for quick presentation of the "new" would definitely make electronic access more desirable for both producer and reader. Or is it bigger trend that is starting there but with time will move on to literature? Already electronic publishing of research papers, which do not normally change after publishing, is happening electroinically. Is it only a matter of time before everyone is so accustomed to reading on screen that they will naturally gravitate to that medium for books' content as well?

Previous transitions in this transmission of information (verbal to written, scrolls to books, manual copies to printing press) each produced such a noticeable improvement without obvious down side that the transition was probably quickly and widely accepted. (At least it appears so in retrospect. One imagines that folks at the time may not have thought so.) Does the transition from paper to pixels have this same upside-only character? It looks that way for at least some content.

As Tablet PCs become more widely accepted and deployed (which, in spite of the naysaying of those who still don't get it, they are and will) some of the other objections will be eliminated from the equation. While not the same experience as reading a book, neither is reading on a Tablet like reading on a strictly vertical screen on a desk, or even on a notebook on your lap. Several good reader formats already exist and more are being explored and developed. More and better ways of allowing annotation are being created. Tablet models are, for the most part, comfortable to carry and hold and will continue to improve over time (although right now we are seeing one step backward for each step forward with many vendors. HP, are listening? Give us back a detachable keyboard, screen and bezel buttons, and the scroller!)

I don't claim to know what the future holds, but I'll be very surprised if most of us aren't doing most of our reading on Tablets or Tablet-like devices down the road. What about you?


So much has been happening over the last year (or two!) that postings here have languished. Certainly not for lack of topic material!

We are now officially a one-to-one Tablet PC school. After a major vendor snafu, we are now mostly running on HP 2710p Tablet PCs, which I generally like well. (More on this later.) We are a significantly smaller school than we have been in the past, a somewhat intentional short-term situation with a large impact on our program. We had a great orientation week planned with lots of Tablet PC based training--which was completely derailed by the aforementioned vendor snafu. We recovered and did an abbreviated version of it that was quite successful in my opinion. (Gotta roll with those punches.) Preparations are ongoing for the 2008 WIPTE conference, with a new video presentation option this year geared primarily toward pre-K-12. More on this on the WIPTE site shortly. We've begun the implementation of a work request tracking system that I have very mixed feelings about, but which is an essential part of supporting such a one-to-one program. We've made a commitment to a 10 minute max response time for any classroom technology issue that arises during a class.

And I could go on and on...

But for now I'll put up a quick post to follow this one that is mostly just a bit of pondering about the state of the world.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Always connected, part II

Just a quick note as a follow-up to the last (now ancient) post.

InfoWorld has posted an article on the state of online applications as replacements for desktop applications. Can Web-based applications outwit, outplay, outlast the desktop? It is an interesting read and approaches this topic pretty much strictly from the angle of how well the various web-based offerings compare with MS Office in allowing the writer to get his work done. Overall? After a week of web-only applications, his conclusion is not particularly well. The author indicates right up front, however, that your mileage may vary. It all depends on what you need.

While the capabilities of these applications is, almost by definition, in a constant state of flux and, one hopes, of improvement, they are constrained in ways other than just the unreliable state of Internet connectivity. Case in point on that, by the way: our ISP had problems yesterday that left a number of sites completely unreachable while others were agonizingly slow to load. This lasted pretty much all day. If we depended on a web based application for our work and it was at one of those sites we could have chalked the entire day up as a productivity loss.

His final lines supports my opinion about web-based applications in general.

Anyway, a quote from the end of the article:

Was the experience worth it? Definitely. Are the applications worth the trouble? Mostly not. Zoho is definitely the standout in the group. It’s the only one that not only offers most of the apps I need but also seems to have a clear vision of where it’s going. And it’s free. ThinkFree and gOffice are similar, but neither has the breadth of apps, features, or collaboration that Zoho does.

The rest seem to be offering these apps simply because they can. Google’s Writely and Spreadsheets are impressive examples of Web 2.0 technology, but neither can compete with a desktop app on its own. And neither takes enough advantage of the Web’s particular technologies as yet.

Plus, all these applications are hampered by their very foundations: the Web. Without a Web connection, you can’t use these applications. With a spotty Web connection (such as the one at Bryant Park), you’re dead. Locally installed applications are simply more reliable and feature-rich. No big surprise there.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Always connected or always available?

Maybe I'm just getting old… There was a time when I would jump all over any new technology with the starry-eyed optimism of any youth, or at least any young geek, thinking that this technology was the wave of the future and anyone who couldn't see that was just ignorant. (Oh wait, that attitude is what gave us the Dot-Com bubble, wasn't it? And the subsequent Dot-Com bust…)

But these days, more and more, I get the feeling that the world is full of starry-eyed youths who can't really see the future to save their lives, just the latest buzz-words and hype. I, however, in my maturity and wisdom see things as they really are…

Same hubris, opposite perspective I suppose.

Anyway, my cantankerous musings today stem from thinking about the issues of thin-client computer, desktop virtualization, software as a service, the "death of the desktop" and a number of other buzzwords that are zipping around the tech media today like flies on road kill in mid-July.

In their proper place, most of these technologies have huge benefits in terms of cutting costs (especially support costs), providing quality service, improving reliability, etc. But to hear the pundits pontificating, that proper place sounds like it is everywhere and for everyone and the whole world is going to come around soon.

I think the main thing that bothers me about these technologies, what makes me leery of them even when I can see real benefits to them, is that they all presume a constantly connected system. Even in this day of hotspots at every coffee shop, this is simply not the reality for most of us. Or at least not for those of us who really can and do use our computers anywhere. Sure, if I have to open up my computer and set it on a table before I can use it chances are I will be doing that in some place that will have a wired or wireless connection. But with a Tablet that isn't the reality any more. I use mine in the grocery store for shopping lists. I use it in the car (usually only when I'm not driving but I do keep directions on it), I use it for meetings at other people's houses, I use it in church. In short, I really do use it everywhere, and many of those places have no connectivity. And no connectivity means no data when that data is anywhere but on your computer. It will also mean no applications when those are provided by Google and hosted on Google's servers.

Now maybe that is just because I live and work in the rural northeast, but I doubt it. I think the reality even in major cities is that connectivity really isn't ubiquitous, it is just ubiquitous in most of the places where people actually sit down to compute. And I don't think that (always sitting down to compute) is the future. The future rightly belongs to those who will compute wherever and in whatever position they want.

Then you have airplanes, boats, cars, locations with secured wireless and all sorts of other places where a connection can't or won't happen. And laws that make it illegal to sponge off an open wireless connection. (There goes my ability to keep in touch with family while on the road!)

And don't even get me started on the reliability of Internet connectivity. We just went through four days of no connection at home owing in part to a leaky circuit box and wet weather and in part to a Comcast support screw up. Four days of no access to my data and apps? No way!

And especially don't get me started on the whole security angle of all my data stored on someone else's server with the data of 1,000,000 other people making one very fat, juicy target for someone hell-bent on identity theft or corporate espionage or just plain mischief. Think that is far-fetched? Then you're not reading the papers. They regularly tell us about the very large number of big data bases that are attacked and cracked just to get the personal information of a significant number of people. And those are just the ones that are acknowledged.

OK, I feel somewhat better getting that off my chest. Maybe I'll head on out to the field by the stream out on the back part of campus, relax, and read some of the books I've got on my Tablet. And because they are there and not somewhere else, … I can.