Can Microsoft Turn Digital Ink Into a Key Advantage for Windows and Surface?

Can Microsoft Turn Digital Ink Into a Key Advantage for Windows and Surface?

Vermeer would be so proud

When Microsoft pioneered the tablet PC market a decade ago, the firm was pushing a digital inking innovation that was personally championed by cofounder Bill Gates. Those efforts, though technically impressive, failed, and when Apple reinvigorated the tablet market with the iPad in 2010, that company eschewed inking and styluses for the multi-touch technologies it had honed first with the iPhone. But Microsoft has never given up on digital ink, a technology that is now deeply integrated in Windows and could provide a key differentiator for devices targeted at students, lawyers, reporters, and note-takers of all stripes. Are we on the edge of a digital ink renaissance?

That's perhaps a bit fanciful, and it's important to understand that the applicability of multi-touch will always be vastly bigger than any need for inking. But digital ink and devices that support electromagnetic styluses shouldn't be discounted. In the same way that the PC will always be a need for "doers," those people who need a real keyboard and the versatility and power of a PC to get work done, there will likewise always be a market for those who need or want to take notes—or just write generally—with a stylus. And since most of those people are doing that today with unconnected, non-digital devices—i.e. actual pens and pencils—there is still a market need there too.

The other day, I wrote about a prototype or each interface for various Office "Touch" for Windows apps and while many misunderstood the point of that post—it was really just to show off some advanced or unique functionality in the suite that isn't present in, say, Office for iPad—one of many things I didn't really detail at the time was that the source of that information was a "leaked" video and presentation from Microsoft Research that was really about—wait for it—how digital inking prowess could differentiate Microsoft's productivity offerings. That is, yes, Office "Touch" was part of the story. But it was only part.

I initially chose to focus on the Office "Touch" for Windows angle because I'm personally interested in that, and feel that many readers are as well. But as Mary Jo Foley pointed out upon viewing the same information, this Microsoft Research project is really about the firm creating a cross-group team dedicated to creating a "One Microsoft Ink" strategy. One that would transcend individual products and cross over into Windows, Office and Surface (and Perceptive Pixel, the "big ass screen"). That's platform, service and devices right there.

In Microsoft's view, and it's interesting that this has never wavered despite the failure of the initial Tablet PC initiative, "ink matters," to both users and to Microsoft.

For users, a pen (or stylus) is a natural, powerful productivity tool, one that works well for note-taking, annotation, problem-solving, collaboration, text, math, diagrams, sketches, highlights, doodles, and more. It's personal, and a pen is not distracting, like typing can be in meetings. Users "consider the pen essential for productivity," Microsoft says. Again, I think that's core to what the firm does.

For Microsoft, a pen and digital ink capabilities are a core differentiator and advantage. This new generation of iPad-inspired tablets has only made ink and pens more compelling, it says, and users want to use them for productivity too, not just for consumption. And since Microsoft has decades of experience developing and improving this technology, it is in a unique position to offer the very best experience. Remember: The firm's digital ink technology doesn't just do handwriting recognition, which is impressive. It understands and lets you store your content in digital ink as a native, searchable data format, just like text or other formats. The firm also has a "significant patent portfolio" advantage over its competitors. Yep, Microsoft has patented the hell out of this stuff.

As such, Microsoft has established an incredible, formal set of guidelines for how inking works across its platforms. This isn't a feature of a single product—Windows, Surface, or whatever—it's something that works consistently everywhere. (This is part of the reason why a product idea like Courier represents such backwards thinking: Courier, like Zune or whatever, was just another one-off idea that essentially came from a single person and didn't fit into the broader "One Microsoft" vision that exists today.) Thus, inking isn't just consistent, it will always be consistent. When a future platform, app, or service appears, inking will work there just as it does today in existing solutions. It's not "owned" by Windows, Office, or Surface. It's part of Microsoft.

I don't personally have any interest in digital ink, and I can type much more quickly than I'll ever be able to write thanks to decades of time spent with my hands on a keyboard. (My penmanship has deteriorated so badly I can barely write a check without my hand cramping up. Thankfully, the act of writing a check is likewise old-fashioned.) But for millions of people, this is the ideal interface. Mary Jo Foley, for example, still takes notes on yellow legal pads (i.e. paper) using a real pen, and she would benefit greatly from a truly useful mini-tablet with deeply integrated and sophisticated pen input. She is not alone.

One related bit of information is useful to remember, too: People don't just interact with multi-function devices using one type of input. If you have a normal laptop, for example, you grow accustomed to that device's keyboard and trackpad, and you switch between them without thinking, depending on the task you're preforming. Add multi-touch capabilities to the screen and you will likewise find yourself adding that kind of input to the mix. It's seamless.

Pen works the same way, and one might argue that a device like Surface Pro—which provides a multi-touch screen, a full- or touch-based keyboard, both with multi-touch gesture-compatible trackpads, an optional mouse, and an electromagnetic stylus is in many ways the current apex in versatility. That device itself is somewhat hampered by weight/density issues, but it's a v.1 hardware design and is already otherwise impressive. It will only get better.

For the millions of people out there looking for more than the simplicity of the iPad's multi-touch screen—which is like a child's finger-painting on the refrigerator compared to the Surface's great Dutch oil painting masters of the Renaissance—Microsoft could very well be on the verge of a Renaissance of its own. The only odd bit is that it took the market acceptance of the iPad to make this suddenly viable.

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