'This OS walks up to a tablet and . . .'

XP Tablet Edition is just XP with support for a pen interface and handwriting input and translation services. Microsoft and most of the pen application vendors don't appear to have thought too deeply about usability. ... Perhaps like the iLoo, XP Tablet Edition also was meant as a joke.

Well it turns out the Associated Press story I mentioned last week about Microsoft's U.K. MSN division developing the iLoo, a portable toilet with Internet access, was a hoax, or so Microsoft said last Monday. It was just some crazy joke.

But wait. Come Tuesday, Microsoft was reversing itself again, saying the U.K. office had indeed designed such a product. When headquarters found out about it from news reports, it nixed the project for fear of branding repercussions.

This was all very odd but it seems so, well, in keeping with Microsoft these days. The company seems to be going in a gazillion directions simultaneously and not thinking everything all the way through. Take Windows XP Tablet Edition.

I opined about tablets many months ago, and, at the time, I expressed my doubts about how good XP Tablet Edition would be. Well, thanks to Fujitsu, I have had the opportunity to play with the operating system on quality hardware.

I took an extended test drive after writing about a program called Mind Manager in my Network World "Web Applications" newsletter. Mind Manager is for creating and editing "mind maps," which are used to diagram your thoughts on a topic and are a very effective tool for creative thinking.

Mind Manager 2002 from Mindjet (www.mindjet.com/us/) is the best tool on the market, and when the company said it was releasing a version specifically for the XP Tablet Edition I thought this would be a way to test the whole tablet concept.

So I contacted Fujitsu, which loaned me a Stylistic 4110. This is a nice piece of hardware. Arguably a little heavier than the ideal tablet, but it has a reasonable battery life (about 5 hours), a good screen and good performance. The pen also feels pretty good on the screen - just enough drag to be close to paper and thus feel comfortable for writing.

But I have three major complaints. First, when I used it as a notepad on a table and angled it off to the side to line up with my arm as you would a pad of paper, the screen was hard to read.

Related to the screen issues is my second complaint: The pen tip "floats" above the mouse pointer because of the thickness of the screen glass, which makes positioning difficult at times.

The third was that the machine takes too long to wake up. I used it at a seminar and in power-saving mode it would go to sleep. Then when I went to make a note I'd have to wait too long for it to wake up, which made the tablet's use somewhat stilted.

As for MindManager 2002 for Tablet PC, it is a good product; great for taking structured meeting notes, but limited by the operating system services.

So it is with XP Tablet Edition that I have my big complaints. This version is just XP with support for a pen interface and handwriting input and translation services. Microsoft and most of the pen application vendors don't appear to have thought too deeply about usability.

One of my many irritations about the user interface is that when you tap on a Windows menu with the pen, the menu opens under your hand.

If you try a tablet you'll find that moving the Windows Start menu to the right side of the screen (if you're right-handed) opens menus away from your hand, which is more comfortable. Unfortunately, no such reconfiguration is available for menus in applications that use the conventional Windows user interface.

I contend the operating system doesn't really do what users want from a pen interface. It's like taking a truck, putting racing overalls on the driver, painting a stripe down the side and claiming it's a racecar. It will go, but it won't get there as fast as you hope and the overhead of not being optimized for the task make it, at best, an also-ran.

Perhaps like the iLoo, XP Tablet Edition also was meant as a joke.

Funny stories to backspin@gibbs.com.

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