Tablet PCs To Replace Textbooks, Gates Says

from the and-next-the-world dept

Despite Bill Gates’ 2001 assertion that tablet PCs would be the most popular type of PC in the US by 2006 (another one of his fanciful predictions), they’ve failed to really catch on outside some vertical markets. But Bill has a plan for them to overcome years of sluggish sales: get schools to throw away all their textbooks and replace them with tablet PCs. He says net-connected tablet PCs are lighter and more flexible than textbooks, but ignores one big aspect — the cost of supplying every schoolkid with an expensive piece of electronics, and supporting, maintaining, repairing and replacing them. This isn’t to say that putting more laptops in students’ hands can’t have benefits, but it’s hard to see it happening anytime soon, or with the much-derided Microsoft tablet PC. After all, didn’t Bill want everybody to carry smartphones instead of cheap laptops, anyway?

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Comments on “Tablet PCs To Replace Textbooks, Gates Says”

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mmrtn (profile) says:

Probably Good for Publishers

More than likely, the tablets will also incorporate draconian DRM systems which will force the schools to renew the license every semester and make sure that no one will be able to buy a used book (tablet) to replace one that’s lost, destroyed or stolen.

If they’re really thinkin’, they’ll lock the tablet to a retinal scan of the particular student so therer won’t be any of that dastardly, profit-robbing sharing.

😉 MjM

Michael Vilain (profile) says:

I can see this in college or med school or law sch

but not in primary education. Schools have enough problems keeping textbooks current. My nephew’s 10th Grade Biology text had URLs for additional addenda and further research. That’s pretty good. But can the text book publisher keep that site up for 5-10 years?

That would be a lot cheaper than replacing cracked displays, harddrives, and machines that had been intensioanlly “flushed” by someone.

mmrtnt (profile) says:

Re: I can see this in college or med school or law

“Schools have enough problems keeping textbooks current.”

My assumption here would be that the tablets would be electronically updated. This is probably the only good point of the idea – the tablets would stay very current just by something simple like passing it by a special wireless point


Daniel Post says:

Re: Re: I can see this in college or med school or

I don’t think they mean just keeping the software current. I saw an clipped ad from a technology hardware paper advertising an “Amazing and incredibly HUGE capacity 5 megabyte hard drive for the unbeatable price of” somewhere around two or more thousand dollars, and the ad was less than 15 years old. I remember seeing a radioShack ad for one of their Tandy computers advertising a “lightning-fast processor boasting a blazing”….20 megaHertz. Yep, just 20. The slowest palmPilot is easily quadruple that. Computer hardware goes out of date just as quickly as information does. What might have been sufficient in terms of technology today, two years down the road will seem archaic and functionally inhibitive, especially for a laptop. Apple’s first “portable” computer weighed in excess of 20 pounds if my memory serves me. The Sony Vaio U series weighed less than 2, and posessed enough power that equalled 40 of the apple’s first “portables”. In another fifteen years, what is considered cutting razor’s-edge today will be ready for the museum.

Aaron says:

Re: Re: I can see this in college or med school or law

Combine TabletPC technology with the $100 laptop, and it’s a no-brainer to replace a bunch of $150 textbooks every semester with a digital copy – even at inflated prices, the computer would remove the cost of actually printing and distributing a book, so it would pay for itself very quickly.

It’s not like you need a powerful machine to display some PDF files (or more appropriately, whatever DRM type the publishers settle on).

If publishers would stop thinking it’s 1906 instead of 2006, this could happen tomorrow.

EverlastGobbStopper says:

Re: Re: I can see this in college or med school or law

Some schools run a netboot server and all of the data is stored and software runs from there, the tablets could load from a wireless connection from a bootCD(winPE) or preconfigured selection in the BIOS, this would do away with the need for multiple software packages to be loaded on each tablet and all you would need would be enough licenses for each student, not a full site license.

This would bring it back to the days of dumb terminals, but would keep cost down and keep the school/students free from “temptation”

A VM server with various slices would also be a solution, but all would still mean more money for the master MAC, Da Billanator!!

Griffon (profile) says:

I liked tablets but...

I really like the form factor and flexibility of tablets, especially the convertibles. Yeah they could be lighter and much slicker in design (edgeless) but the real problem with this concept is the same thing that keeps them from being useful for long meetings or a real day on the job. Power. You need to be able to run one of these devices for a days and days without needing to recharge it (really a full work week would be about right). And that doesn’t mean in some minimal slow ass mode that has a to dark screen and no wifi, that means with everything on. If I could get about 3 days of full regular usage (about what I get from my cel phone), I would never put my tablet down. As it is the need for power and constant hawking makes it as annoying and as cumbersome as any other laptop in meetings (worse in some ways). I would imagine pretty useless in a classroom environment with 30 other students viing for plugs and tripping over each other. Fix the power quistion… and well I think there might be something there. 1 brick beets 6 text book bricks IMO. Sadly we are a LONG way from getting that core issue fixed.

AntiGates says:

Gates obsession with Tablet PCs explained

Gates is obsessed with tablet PCs to the point where he clearly isn’t paying attention to the market, which has spoken. Why are tablet PCs hated? Because the ergonomics suck.

Efficient input and output is the core of computer usage. It’s why we still use QWERTY keyboards and cling to decades old Windowing system metaphors. Tablets change the input/output for the user enough to create a substantial barrier to entry for even the most determined to change their behavior.

But that’s EXACTLY what Bill Gates wants. He has made his billions by leveraging the psychological barrier to change. If he can make Tablet PCs wildly popular, then Microsoft will continue to have control in the input/output space.

They’ll control how you “act” on a tablet. You wont’ want to change to a Linux tablet if you have to relearn how to “type” on a tablet because the pen gestures, or other input mechanism, are wrapped up in patents.

They’ll control how you “perceive” on a tablet. The user-interface changes that will reflect the entry being done on the display itself will be locked up in patents.

Once users, especially non-techies, are comfortable (read: neurally addicted) with how you “act” and “perceive” on the next-generation mobile computing device, they will have a barrier to *switching*.

And that’s exactly what Microsoft wants.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Gates obsession with Tablet PCs explained

What most people seem not to understand is that most of these devices are convertibles, so they can be used both as normal laptops and as teblet PCs. So users don’t have to “convert”. People are not buying them for mostly stupid reasons, like they think it’s a different platform, fear that they break more easily, etc.

For anyone who tried to use a laptop while standing, the benefits are obvious. Also much better at reading ebooks or prety much anything, browsing. Laptops are only usable when you sit straight in a chair. So why don’t have both instead of only one paradigm?

Jake (user link) says:

Let it filter down.

Even high school students en masse cannot manage to bring books to class consistently. Let it get more popular it the college realm (where many already bring laptops to class) and then see if high schoolers can manage. I’m going to even recommend elementary students get them before high schoolers or middle schoolers. Not that they are more responsible, but someone else is more responsible for them.

Dan (user link) says:

Business Schools well on the way

I am graduating from the Marriott Business School at BYU. It’s not uncommon for every student in a class to have a laptop. Some of the emphasises require a laptop and I don’t think students would have trouble buying an electronic version of a textbook rather than a hard copy. The printing alone would drop the cost of textbooks dramatically. I could see it catching on at the college level.

Mr. Magoo says:

And of course Mr. Bill wants the government to spend MY money to do this. Textbooks are fine (even though they are overpriced.) Throwing money and technology at kids isn’t going to make most of them better students. If a kid doesn’t have the internal gumption, or doesn’t have parents who require the student to do his best then the student won’t be successful, no matter how much money is spent.

And, as already mentioned, how in the world does Gates expect a tablet PC to hold up for an entire school year in the hands of a child!?!??!

MacG says:

Laptops already being used

In the county where I live, all middle school and high school students are issued a laptop computer, either an iBook or a Dell PC. I won’t comment on the various points regarding obsolescence, ruggedness, etc, except to say that the program seems to be considered successful. Official County Webpage.

On the other hand, when they do decide to sell off the previously used hardware, chaos might happen.

Iane Fi'Lar says:

First Hand Example

My school just added Tablet PC’s to our program this year. I’m typing on it right now. It’s a conversion piece so i can type my notes and then hand-write an essay. I think it’s great and my grades have never been higher. then again I don’t use even half the features and I’m a computer geek so things just naturally get fixed for me. the problem isn’t even the usability since most of our class by this time have it figured out: it’s maintenence and attention.

maintenence: our wireless netowrk alone needs a team of 3 people to maintain it. This is a very very small school, less than 500 people in the high school. Then our laptops themselves are serviced by that same team with a few students. Let me put it simply: we have 25 loaner computers if your hardware goes bad, and a waitlist that’s three pages long. People drop them or otherwise break them. They need a replacement and can’t get one.

Then there is attention. For the majority of the students, their grades have never been lower. they spend the time they shoudl be paying attention surfing the Internet or playing games. There is just too much you can do rather than pay attention. why listen to a history lecture when your friends on AIM are calling?

The majority of our school hates them. it was a huge investment however so we are keeping the progrm. Keep in mind also I go to a private school so we have the cash to put in that infrastructure. It’s a massive massive investment. It’s fine for people like me who like technology and like to be on the cutting edge, but the rest i think won’t want to be forced to adopt. however my bookbag is much lighter.

Tyshaun says:

E-books for students ae nice but...

Call me a romantic, but I think textbooks, and books in general, should never be phased out. There’s something viceral about the weight, feel, and smell of a book. Turning the pages, making notes in the margins, books just “feel” a lot more organic and “comfortable”. I know this arguement may not carry much weight in a forum like Techdirt, but sometimes, although a computer may do it better, maybe the old ways have a certain emotional weight that should be preserved.

I think of my 5 year old sitting around and learning how to read with his “first book” series. He spends hours pondering every inch of every page, tosses the book when he feels frustrated, and sometimes falls asleep while trying to learn. I just don’t think it be the same experience learning on his “tablet PC”.

No, I like the direction that my childs school is taking. Every classroom has desktops sufficient for every student with the lcd monitors integrated into the desk so they are used, as needed. Students have accounts on the school server and as they go from class to class can log in to get their own personalized desktop. They do all of their class assignments and readings via this system. Also, there is a VPN like functionality so that they can log into the network at night and access online media and even submit assignments (I like it because it also has a parent feature so I can look at my childs work as well, along with the teachers comments). The only thing more they are thinking of doing is some type of program to support those kids/families who are unable to afford the “at home” part of the system.

Cary says:

Ooops, I just dropped my textbook, now I can't cha

If he’s at all saying that any group within the k-12 set will use a tablet PC instead of a textbook, he’s got no concept of reality. Until there is a “kid-resistant” tablet (or any notebook for that matter) there will be no way that it will replace books in those grades. And then there is the matter of some bully taking your backpack. With the cost of tablet PCs it will end up being a felony. When there is a super-rugid sub-$100 notebook (with a much better interface to the books than we currently have available), I seriously doubt that it will be even considered as an options for the k-12 set.

Note to Bill:

Given your crappy record of predicting the future, Just keep your stupid pie hole shut!!!

Asher Schweigart (user link) says:

Nice, but i like books

It’s a nice idea, and i like the fact that it would save money on textbooks.

However, i like a real book i can read, and keep later on, not having to worry about compatibility or having a power supply.

I might use a digitaly textbook for classes that i don’t plan on keeping my textbook (like history or something), but for my computer classes, I would want a hardcopy that o could reference later on.

My school has a subscription to some online textbook service for the CS department, but i don’t really use it. I just don’t like looking at a screen to read a book. Espcially if i only have one monitor. If i have a dual setup, the i can see both at once, but how are you goin to have that in class?

What i would like to see is an option to have both: a digital copy and a hard copy. That way i could use my book most of the time, but if i was out somewhere with my laptop and needed to look something up in my textbook, i could.

But really, i couldn’t see paying the gobs of extra money companies would want for that.

Like i said, i think it’s a great idea, and if you are the type who doesn’t mind reading a textbook of a computer screen, then this would be great for you.

Hegemon says:

Saving costs on text books is a moot point

I keep seeing the same argument for this appear in the reponses. That is, that schools will somehow save money on textbooks by going to this system. I think, however, that the ebook market has alreday proven that it is highly unlikely that it will save them any money at all. The cost of ebooks is rarely a significant savings over buying the actual book, and is often actually more expensive than discounted price one can get at any department store. Whats more, text book publishers tend to be the greediest of them all, releasing hugely overpriced new “editions” every year or two, and forcing schools to update by discontinuing the old “edition.” Usually, these updates have very little to do with actual content, and much more to do with format. Page numbers, examples, and other things that make using varying versions in a classroom impossible, are all “updated,” even when little to no new content has actually been added.

If anyone really believes that kind of behavior is going to stop just because textbooks go digital, they gullible in the worst way. It is not printing costs that have textbook prices so inflated, and the elimination of printing costs is not going to inspire any significant decrease in their pricing. It will simply allow for more proit margin for the publishers.

Last, and worst, is that the inevitible DRM surrounding these digital textbooks could easily end up costing schools significantly more, as I can easily imagine publishers starting to charge a “license” fee for each student, thus eliminating whatever reusabililty remains for textbooks in public schools.

Christopher says:


Why is it that Gates always pops up to say stupid things/crazy predictions that sound good but fall apart after a little investigation?? Surely he can’t get much more publicity out of this?

By the work of his own company (the cost of licencing copies of windows) tablet PCs (and decent laptops for that matter) are prohibitously expensive – and unless he is willing to pay for them himself (or have the government do it, somehow) – they are somewhat unnatainable for the general public.

My sister was given a laptop in yr 7 (2003). It cost 4.5K, had no optical drives, floppy disk, 30GB (relatively small) of hard disk, and was flimsy as anything. It broke down no less then 5 times, and had to be replaced.

It really is more trouble (at this stage) then it’s worth – but it is a nice idea, Gates-wise, of course.

Christopher says:

Oh... and

The laptops/tablet PCs, to be practical, would have to be really rugged. Kids tend to throw their stuff around…. and break a lot of stuff unintentionally. I can imagine, even if the computers are subsidised by a body outside of the school, that the school will get hit by massive repair bills, or parents who can’t afford to pay.

This is a pipe dream. Nice idea, but does it deserve a whole news story of its own?? Gates must make a new prediction/promise every week!

Austin says:


This idea is currently being tested in several places, including French public high schools. The students seem to get use out of them, and several courses are structured around their use. As of now, the tablets are given to students for one year. If a students breaks one, they are liable for damage. The system really works well in places with spotty or only dialup internet.

Christopher says:

I know, Austin

But tablet PCs are hardly rugged… that central hinge looks pretty easy to snap. I have seen people totally destroy notebooks like the panasonic toughbook in their daily grind…. (and doing nothing out of the ordinary – 9-5 job, etc) so tablet PCs have a way to go….

Also – what makes tablet PCs any better then normal laptops? I find a QWERTY keyboard is a far more efficient data entry method then any kind of handwriting, stylus based, and/or otherwise, even when all kinds of function buttons are involved.

I think the thing that will really kill the keyboard is speech, and then thought detection (yes – it is allready in use in labs accross the world! Try

The stylus is a gimmick for very very small computers, like PDAs. For a fully featured machine it is a joke. Except in art of course – I still miss my tablet! 😉

Do tablet PCs have pressure sensitivity?

Anonymous Coward says:

I think cheap proprietary E-Paper based tablets will be the future of books, not full blown windows-based tablet pcs

Spot on Paul. For all of the viceral appeal of books, seriously, does anyone believe that the advantages of constantly corrected electronic media, ease of data transfer, and simple usefulness inherent to computing devices won’t at some point relegate real books to a niche product? The real problem with Gate’s assertion is that the Tablet PC is a proven hard sell; mainly because of the price imposed by Windows licensing. It’s hard to justify the ROI for a $2000 Tablet when usable laptops are starting to commonly become available for less than $500. But bring out a low power, low cost tablet-like device, running a minimal OS, semi-ruggedized for rough use, with decent connectivy… That would kill, especially if the manufacturer provided aand entire solution suite; device, support, digital textbooks and updates. When e-paper comes into it’s own you could probably do it for $300 – $400 a head, which isn’t bad.

‘Course nothing will make teachers retrain/rethink their teaching methods to utilize the resources, or welcome books that constantly change, or the inevitable smart alecks that point out every change.

Anonymous Coward says:

true eBook

one thing that i fear is distractions that come along with a computer. what i would suggest is specialized display, that actually looks like a textbook i.e. spine on the side instead of at the top. open it like a textbook, insert a flash drive, and read your book. have about 4 ports (to read upto 4 booka at a time), a mechanism to switch between books and about 50 bookmarks per book. the bookmarks could be saved on the reader or one the book.

both displays should be independently scrollable or tied together as the user wants. i guess, the users will want to copy, print or highlight some stuff let them convert/print up to 10-20 pages at a time to format of their choice (MS Word, PDF, OO, html or plaintext).

i think 30Hz display should be good enough. it will be a low power consumption because there are no other devices other than a 20-key keyboard, the display, a speaker, 64MB onboard RAM and a few usb ports. no networks of any kind.

jp23 says:

It's not as bad as it seems

For those that would be interested to know:

1. Over 1 million laptops are being sold annually to K-12 schools for student use already.

2. A large number of schools are already piloting 1:1 laptop solutions, where every student has a laptop. This includes several state funded efforts, most notably every middle school in Maine.

3. Many schools are already much further advanced than the previous posters imply on the use of laptops in schools. Affordable content isn’t the biggest issue.

4. Schools have about 10 years of experience in what works, and what doesn’t. In many cases this is backed up by solid research evidence.

5. Rather than focusing on the cost of the solution, why not focus on the value, or the cost/benefit ratio? A laptop is cheap compared to another year in an Algebra classroom.

Mel (user link) says:


I’m so sick of freaking expensive books and the fact they keep coming out with new additions that have like a picture changed every five minutes. I have been using the site which has really helped though, they gave me really good deals on a bunch of book sites. I just can’t wait until everyone uses sites like this one so the college bookstores stop making so much money off of us.

Kennedy (user link) says:

I've posted more on this topic and others on my te is a site I recently launched that mantains a database of sites that offer e-textbooks and allows users to vote on which places to buy and sell standard textbooks are best. In addition, the site advocates the use of textbook exchanges and posts many resources that allow students to do this. I’m going to post a link to this post in the site’s forum.

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