Microsoft Invents a Reason to Buy a Tablet

Thursday Feb 14th 2008 by Mike Elgan

Tablet PCs tend to be a snooze – overpriced and underwhelming. But that’s about to change.

Why would anyone want to buy a Tablet PC?

Tablet devices are perceived as little more than heavy and slow laptops with small screens and large price tags. The payoff? You get to write on them with a stylus and take notes as if you're writing on paper. Wake me when you're done.

Poor sales prove that the costs exceed the benefits in the minds of most potential buyers.

All that may start to change tomorrow, when a prototype application called InkSeine -- which is, essentially, a digital notebook on crack -- is released for public trial.

InkSeine is being developed by a small team at Microsoft Research. The application is for demonstration purposes only, and not on track to become a real Microsoft product you can buy. But if InkSeine gains traction as a popular enabler of pen-based computing, you can bet it will be productized -- or, better still, built into the Tablet PC version of Windows, possibly as a replacement for the Windows Journal application. Many revolutionary products started out as research projects. Google comes to mind, for example.

Here's what InkSeine can do:

• Serve as a virtual pad of paper. You can scribble and writes notes, draw pictures and doodle. Words can be recognized, and used as commands or search terms.

• Search. You can search the Web, your e-mail or your Tablet PC right from the "pad of paper" using pen gestures. For example, just write your search term longhand, circle it, flick your wrist in the right direction and the search is launched.

• Save running searches. Search e-mail for keywords, then save the search right there along side your notes. Future messages that meet that criteria will show up when delivered, and you can read them without exiting InkSeine.

• Select and embed "clippings" -- images, document or Web page parts, etc.

• Drag and drop links into notes.

• Create insta-icons (with automatic, in-page links) by just snapping a picture of any portion of any screen, including the document or Web page you're linking to.

InkSeine has user interface innovations, such as "radial menus" and pen gestures that make it one of those applications you have to see to understand, so check out this video.

If you have a Tablet PC or other pen system running either XP or Vista (preferably Vista), you should download InkSeine here (wait until tomorrow, Feb. 15, when the "public" version hits).

Be warned, however, that InkSeine is a science project, a proof of concept application that isn't polished -- or even finished.

Here's what InkSeine cannot do:

• Import text or receive pasted text.

• Respond to keyboard shortcuts.

• Scroll or resize objects. You can view only full "pages" of your notes -- you cannot zoom in.

• Import existing documents.

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• Export to or import from OneNote (you can, however, copy OneNote pages and paste them into InkSeine).

• "Undo" actions after a page has been "flipped" (after you've gone on to another page).

• Handle languages other than English.

• Always provide zippy performance. The developers have not done extensive work to minimize file sizes or maximize performance.

• Share or sync notes.

• Play well with others. Non-Microsoft application document support is limited.

These are abilities the developers may add to future versions.

InkSeine is interesting because of the audaciousness of its pen and paper centricity, and the invention of an entire new language of gestures and menu conventions.

It assumes that you'll do everything with the pen, rather than use the pen as an afterthought mouse replacement. It assumes that everything associated with the project at hand should be embedded, referenced or captured into the paper alongside your notes and sketches.

I'm not sure if InkSeine will catch fire and become the Killer App that propels Tablet PCs into the mainstream. But it might.

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