Windows XP Tablet PC Edition: Digital Ink

In last week’s commentary, I explained how skeptical I'd been about the Tablet PC and the assumptions I'd made about its lack of capabilities. Then, I received a Tablet PC demonstration and started to really study the device's features.

This week, I explore the features of Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, which Microsoft launched November 7, and the incredible devices it runs on. XP Tablet PC Edition is a superset of the XP Professional Edition OS.

Tablet PC users input data with a digital pen. Because Tablet PCs are full-blown XP PCs, users can also input data by using a standard keyboard or mouse. Tablet PCs have special active digitizer screens to let users write directly on the screen, a process that Microsoft calls "inking." Left-handers' chronic problem of accidentally touching the screen as they input data is eliminated with the Tablet PC's electromagnetic sensor, which detects only the digital pen's touch.

An exciting Tablet PC feature is that you don't have to train the computer to recognize your handwriting. Microsoft Research analyzed, collected, and stored numerous styles of writing and incorporated them into the handwriting recognition engine's intelligence. The result is that you can convert your illegible, cursive handwriting to text through handwriting recognition or leave it as handwriting, which you can treat as an image. You can use both the image and the converted text in Microsoft Office applications on any Windows-based computer. Many competitive OSs and applications can also read Office file formats, and these competitors will eventually support Tablet PC handwriting recognition. Although XP Tablet PC Edition's handwriting recognition capabilities are beyond anything I've ever seen, they're not perfect yet. As I've frequently heard since the Tablet PC launch, if people can't read your handwriting, neither can a computer.

Inking technology lets you input information in a way that's more natural. The technology makes it quick and easy to insert a sketch or drawing, write down a chart, take notes, and annotate Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. For many users, using digital ink is faster and easier than using a keyboard. A learning curve will exist though, especially for old dogs like me. The morning of the Tablet PC launch, even Bill Gates admitted to NBC "Today Show" host Katie Couric that Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer chastised him for bringing a pad of paper and a pen to a recent Microsoft meeting. That must have been an amusing exchange.

Inking comprises numerous technologies. Alex Gounares, Microsoft software development manager and lead software architect for the Tablet PC, says that Microsoft teams on several continents collaborated to create inking. Tablet PCs contain a digitizer that overlays the LCD screen and creates an electromagnetic field. When the special Tablet PC pen contacts the screen's electromagnetic field, the pen's motion translates on the screen to a series of data points. As you move the pen across the screen, a digitizer uses a sampling process to collect the pen's movement information. The digitizer can sample 130 data points per second. The data points that the digitizer samples are then rendered on screen as pen strokes. Because the sampling rate is so high, the Tablet PC can display and store the digital ink with a high graphical resolution, which contributes to on-screen legibility and maximizes the accuracy of the handwriting recognition process.

About 15 OEM hardware manufacturers will release (or have already released) Tablet PC models. You can select between designs that have hinged or detachable screens, pure slates (i.e., sleek Tablet PCs with small footprints), docking solutions for those who are on the run, and sturdy slate computers that can handle the beating of the road warrior. To read more about the Tablet PC, click the following link:

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