Microsoft's Bill Gates foresees the next ten years as a "digital decade," by the end of which Americans will have converted all their information to digital storage. They'll be able to access it anywhere, regardless of hardware platform, wireless connection, or data medium. As a consequence, Gates predicts that worker productivity will double in that period.
It's a nice goal, but Gates' vision is a little short on details—how will we get there? Speaking at the PC Expo conference in New York in June, Micro-soft's Jeff Raikes, group VP for productivity and business services, filled in some of the blanks.
His answer was the Tablet PC, being launched by Microsoft and its hardware and software partners on Nov. 7. Using touch-screen technology and borrowing heavily from the Palm Pilot interface, tablets could remove the barriers between people and their data.
Tracing the development of this trend, Raikes noted that the 1980s marked the emergence of personal digital tools like spreadsheets and word processors. In the 1990s, corporations networked personal systems together, sparking the rise of the Internet. And the twenty-ohs will see a better connection between the network and the individual.
He enumerated the hurdles to reaching that goal: disconnected islands of data, inefficient collaboration, information overload and e-mail fatigue, multiple devices and interfaces, and diversity of business processes. While those technical challenges could apply to any industry, they sound especially familiar to design engineers.
A current solution is portals, those Internet sites that allow people to connect only to the data they need. But Microsoft wants to revolutionize the actual interface between computer and user. Raikes cited research that over 90% of people take notes at meetings, but only 11% of people use their laptops to do it, and only 24% use their PDAs to do it. He also studied how people use those notes: 77% refer to them for reference, 64% use them as a to-do list, and 42% transcribe the notes into e-mail.
That whole chain would run faster if we took the original notes digitally, Raikes said. So Microsoft is developing Office Suite version 11, due for release in Summer 2003. Raikes gave a sneak-preview of the new
Outlook e-mail program, which will "reduce the sense of information glut" with a larger reading area, easier wireless connections, and tools that allow people to use their e-mail in-boxes as task lists.
But the keyboard still acts as a wall between people and their PCs. And that's where the new tablet comes in—think of it as a nearly laptop-sized Palm or Handspring PDA, running a version of Microsoft's Windows XP operating system. You can draw onscreen with a stylus, either handwriting sentences or tapping letters on a virtual keyboard. The tablet could be part of a laptop, with detachable models fitting into docking stations, or it could be self-sufficient, depending on which version you buy—Microsoft has partnered with Fujitsu PC Corp., Motion Computing, and Toshiba to make the hardware, and with Corel Corp., Adobe Systems Inc., and FranklinCovey/Agilix for the software.
The scratchpad uses handwriting recognition to automatically pull dates into a calendar, or numbers into a phone book. And recent advances to the stylus let it act more like a good, old-fashioned pencil, with a virtual eraser on the back end, and pressure-sensitive strokes that grow darker as you press down. With the proper software, you can now scribble handwritten notes within e-mail, write notes in the margins of your electronic book, or clip part of a web page for e-mailing to a friend, just as you might rip this story out of the magazine and thumbtack it to the office bulletin board.
Microsoft's software partners have developed other cool tricks—Corel will offer an application called Onion Skins that allows a reader to "mark up" a document on successive tinted layers, as if he'd laid tracing paper on top of a blueprint. And FranklinCovey will offer a datebook that looks exactly like its famous Franklin Planner.
It's an impressive suite of tools, but there weren't many people in the conference hall to hear about it. Now in its 20th year, PC Expo claimed it would attract 50,000 visitors over its three-day run. But compared to previous years, the show's shrunken exhibition floor left a large portion of the Javits Center conference hall empty. That lack of booths meant there was a deficit of the jaw-dropping new technologies shown here in past years.
But organizers did one thing right—the show's new name is TechXNY ("Technology Exhibition Week New York"). Getting the phrase "PC" out of the title is a true sign that 21st century technology is not about the personal computer itself, but about the network on one end, and the user interface on the other.
For more information about tablet PCs from Microsoft, www.microsoft.com: Enter 535