Reappearing Ink

Comdex wouldn't be Comdex without a Tablet PC rollout -- at least for the past several years. The cab lines in Las Vegas may be shorter and the spaces between display booths wider, but the Tablet keeps slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.

Each year Bill Gates methodically touts the platform, demonstrating the wonders of digital ink. Each year, the press argues the merits with a mixture of disdain and device envy. Hardware vendors play a similar role, handicapping the technology by their presence or lack of it at post-keynote press conferences.

Conspicuously missing in action from the official Tablet PC rollouts in New York and San Francisco two weeks ago were models from Dell Computer Corp. and IBM Corp. Now that Dell has come to the table with a PDA, the spotlight is now firmly where IBM wants it to be. The ThinkPad -- (drumroll) -- votes no.

Check, please. You mean to tell me that the gold standard for business mobility is thumbing its nose at a central element of Gates' vision? At best, IBM's desktop franchise is filibustering Microsoft Corp.'s expansion into pervasive computing. At worst, Big Blue is just saying no.

For a ThinkPad fan, and a devoted one at that, this is tough medicine to swallow. I'm already under switching pressure from Apple's glorious Titanium. (Is Titanium more valuable than gold, I wonder?) And every time I pick up one of the Tablet models, I feel cheap and dirty, checking into a roadside motel with a laptop form factor I've already rejected.

It's easy to find fault with this first wave of Tablets. Either the screen is too small or it weighs too much. The Compaq is cheaper but the pressure-sensitive ink doesn't work. And then there's the handwriting recognition engine -- the latest recipient in a long line of cheap shots stretching back to Doonesbury and the Newton.

By the way, don't get me started on another of Gates' Holy Grails -- voice recognition. I already yell at my computer enough, thank you. An airplane full of people arguing with their laps is not my idea of nirvana. But I think Bill is dead on about the Tablet. It's difficult to explain ... if I could just draw you a picture ...

Let me try anyway. First, the Tablet is not a replacement for anything. Its stylus makes a lousy mouse and glass makes a lousy surface. But look at instant messaging. It's attacked as just another form of e-mail and lauded as a cheap substitute for the phone. In reality, it stuck precisely because it's neither of the above, but rather a complementary third channel that plays off the other two's weaknesses and amplifies their strengths.

Now look at the PC's killer app -- the spreadsheet. It validated the form factor because of a simple truth: It produced an immediate return on investment for the machine and, in the process, produced a new class of information worker that drove the virtuous circle of mass market innovation.

So what does the Tablet do that could fuel another wave of innovation? For starters, it leverages Moore's and its companion laws in storage, broadband, and network effects. Even in this timid rollout, processor speed is providing near real-time ink redraw. The hard drives start at 20 gigs and average 30. And 802.11 is (or will be) standard issue.

This accumulation of disruptive technologies mirrors the emerging value proposition of the telephony sector. Voice over IP and its expression as part of unified messaging has been slowed not just by the economy but, more subtly, the perceived lack of utility. Integrated voice and e-mail will eventually provide cost savings as IT moves to virtual storage and grid architectures, but the inability to navigate rapidly through linear audio and video is a significant obstacle.

But add a disruptive technology such as FastTalker's realtime indexing of voice data, embed VOIP in a CRM app, and deploy it on a Wi-Fi-enabled pervasive network. Suddenly these disconnected tools are transformed into a context-aware sales tool with an immediate (and recurring) ROI.

Similarly, add the Tablet's disruptive technology, Ink, and you reach another tipping point. Ink, as rendered in the Journal application, is disruptive for at least three reasons.

First, as with FastTalker, the Ink recognition engine produces an on-the-fly index that can be searched by keyword. Next, Ink data can be interactively manipulated with familiar word processing tools, including the powerful ability to jot down a list of items, then return and drag out space to enter additional detail. Last but not least, Ink is built on an XML architecture, opening the possibility of integrating Ink data with Office applications in a deeper way.

Much has been made of Ink's deficiencies, as initially deployed on the Tablet. The Journal application is only available on the Tablet, although Microsoft promises a reader application will be released into the wild. Office integration is minimal, allowing you to insert bitmapped representations of Ink comments into Word and Excel. And moving Ink via e-mail destroys the ability to search, manipulate, or expose the underlying data programmatically.

But Office 11 and its XDocs forms designer sit on an XML foundation, suggesting an opportunity for developers to interlace Ink's data model with Word and Excel documents. Several things then need to happen in quick succession: Expose the Ink XML Schema architecture, add Journal support to Outlook's message body and header fields, and provide a drag-and-drop Journal object type to the XDocs IDE.

And what's the killer app? Ink is an idea processor. It provides a unique service, the ability to capture ideas in process and massage them into shape. Its target market -- CxOs, architects, and creative types -- offers an infinite return on investment. One good idea can launch a company. Just as with Web services, as the number of endpoints increases, the value to the enterprise increases exponentially.