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The coming of the tablet PC

Will these be the little computers that transform education?

Roger Fidler predicted the future of computing more than 20 years ago. The recent slate of tablet PCs is evidence that Fidler's vision has begun to arrive.

Fidler is probably not even on the list of names that come to mind when you think of high tech. That's probably because he's a newspaper man with more than 30 years in the business, much of it with Knight-Ridder. But he's no ordinary newspaperman. He predicted in 1981 that portable flat-panel reader devices called tablets would one day be used to display newspapers, books and other documents. Amazingly, these predictions were made before the commercialization of the Internet and before USA Today existed.

How should school be
organized if students can
carry a library in a tablet
PC and share information
through wireless networks?

Fidler is a newspaperman with technological vision. While with Knight-Ridder in the '80s, he started the first computer-based news graphics service and the first global Intranet for the newspaper industry. In 1991 at Columbia University, he created the first prototype electronic newspaper designed specifically for viewing on magazine-size tablets. A year later, he launched Knight-Ridder's Information Design Laboratory in Boulder, Col., and wrote Mediamorphosis: Understanding New Media, published in 1997. Today he is director of the Institute for Cyberinformation at Kent State University.

Time will tell whether Fidler is right about the widespread use of tablet PCs to read newspapers and magazines. He says critical elements for acceptance include a notebook-paper size screen with better resolution than paper, a total device weight of less than two pounds, and widespread content availability. Critics say that even when the technology delivers on these requirements the concept of reading on a tablet PC is still wrong aesthetically. No one wants to "curl up" with a computer, they say. I doubt it's an either/or proposition.

The Tablet Rules

Whether or not you end up reading your newspaper electronically, I'm sure of one thing-the tablet PC is the form factor of the future for portable computing. I saw the Compaq Tablet PC TC1000 at a recent trade show and spoke with Fidler about it. He gives it high marks for screen resolution and says the ease of switching from "landscape" to "portrait" viewing represents a big advantage over traditional laptops, which present the screen in a fixed "landscape" position. Fidler's studies show that most people prefer a portrait view for reading documents. The Compaq Tablet PC is still a bit heavy, but Fidler predicts that HP and others are less than two years away from the two-pound threshold. Fidler says content in this age of cheap memory may become widely available on compact flash cards or memory sticks that can be used and easily erased and updated.

The biggest criticism I've heard of tablets has to do with handwriting recognition. But the tablet PC isn't really about handwriting. Many of us can type faster than we write, and composition will still be done at the keyboard. We'll use the pen for navigation and for drawing, annotating and writing formulas, which are far more cumbersome to do with a keyboard.

A New Form-Factor for School

One question not discussed enough is how tablets will influence school. If students can carry a library in a portfolio-sized tablet PC and share information through wireless networks, how should school be organized? How should we group students for maximum learning? How can learning be extended beyond today's "classroom lesson plus homework" model? The potential of the tablet PC goes far beyond giving teachers portable grade books or lightening backpacks with an all-in-one electronic textbook.

Like HP, Fujitsu, Acer, ViewSonic and NEC are manufacturing tablet PCs based on a special version of Windows XP. Microsoft is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on tablet PCs, but the party really gets rocking when tablet PCs based on the Palm, Apple and Linux operating systems join the mix. At least that's what Fidler says, and he's been thinking about this for a long time. You should be too-it could revolutionize your profession.

Daniel E. Kinnaman,,is publisher.