“I’m a corridor warrior.” So says, Alex Gounares, Microsoft Corp.’s lead architect for its new Windows XP Tablet PC Edition software. Gounares says that like many mobile professionals, he spends much of his time running from meeting to meeting, with a computer in hand. But, it’s tough to set up a laptop on the fly, says Gounares. And it’s distracting and difficult to take meeting notes by typing on a keyboard. So, Gounares brought his own experience to the team that designed the user-interface for the Tablet PC software, which Microsoft debuted in November. They created a one-of-a-kind digital pen functionality that replicates the experience of note-taking with pen and paper. “Your handwriting comes out looking like it would on paper,” says Gounares. Tablet PC users can send handwritten e-mails and fill in business forms, for example.
At launch, just 27 software vendors had announced applications for the Tablet PC operating system, but that number is growing quickly. Only one, SAP AG, has a customer relationship management system that can be used with it. mySAP CRM lets tablet PC users collaborate with peers, partners and customers in real-time. It has all the traditional benefits of mySAP CRM – availability checks, contract and billing management, fulfillment visibility and order tracking, for example – with the unique and useful digital pen interface created by Gounares and his Microsoft crew. Gounares says the ability to use a digital pen instead of a touch screen will be a boon for workers and will drive tablet PC sales. Researcher Gartner Inc. predicts that some 425,000 tablet PCs will be sold in 2003. That’s a small percentage of the mobile device market but within five years, the majority of portable computers will be tablets, says Cory Linton, Windows XP Tablet PC Edition product manager.
Gounares and Linton spoke to SAP INFO about the development of the Tablet PC software and outlined some of its most compelling features.
What industries, processes and businesses will benefit most and most quickly from tablet PC use?
Gounares: The biggest umbrella, if you will, is the typical knowledge worker. For earliest adoption, we really think of it in terms of road warriors and corridor warriors.
Microsoft chairman Bill Gates said that the company devoted some $500 million to the development of Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. What were the most costly and difficult aspects of the development process?
Gounares: We’ve been working on the key technologies and ideas for over 10 years now. That’s when we started our investments in handwriting recognition technology and began working on the user experience aspects of ink-to-text conversion. In recent years, we started up the tablet project and made a much larger investment in thinking through the whole tablet experience. Handwriting recognition was, is, and probably will continue to be a very difficult computer science topic. We also did a lot of work to understand how users would use the tablet PC in mobility scenarios. What kind of utilities do they need? How does the pen work best? A lot of investment went into that.
Linton: About two years ago we built many prototype tablets that we designed ourselves to use for development purposes. We gave about 40 of them to end users and we took away their primary PCs for a month. These were people outside of Microsoft. We learned so much from them that we completely rearchitected the way users interact with the tablet. We actually did another usage study about a year ago and another one last fall. So, we’ve done three pretty involved studies.
Did anything surprise you about the results of those user studies?
Linton: Yes. We originally had designed our note-taking software to be very much like a word processor, where you insert words and the rest of the words reflow. But we learned that when users had a pen and wrote on digital paper, they expected whatever they wrote to stay there, just like ink on paper. So we really had to redesign quite a bit.
Why is the digital pen so much better than a standard touch screen?
Gounares: You want to have the same convenience as you would with a notepad or a piece of paper. When you write with a pen, you usually rest your palm on the paper. If you had a touch screen, your palm would generate data as well. The Windows XP Tablet PC Edition’s wireless digitizer eliminates that problem. You don’t see any palm prints along with your handwriting.
Linton: Also, the Tablet PC’s digitizer screen is much higher resolution than touch pad technology, and the pen samples at about 3 or 4 times the rate of a mouse. That helps with the smoothing of handwriting curves so the writing looks better on the screen. And it helps with handwriting recognition.
What are other key functions of the software that set it apart?
Gounares: The Windows XP Tablet PC Edition is a pure superset of Windows XP on a laptop. We added the handwriting recognition technology, taking the ink and transforming it into text. And there’s speech recognition built in. Also the whole notion of “ink as ink” is crucial. One of the premier utilities within the Windows XP operating system is Windows Journal, the built-in utility for taking notes in meetings. And, supporting all of that we have the platform functionality. This is what has enabled software companies like SAP to extend their applications to take advantage of Tablet PC.
What are one or two particularly useful software applications designed for use on the Tablet PC platform?
Gounares: One that comes to mind readily is FranklinCovey (FranklinCovey is a Salt Lake City, Utah-based company that sells productivity and time-management products and seminars for 750,000 participants per year). FranklinCovey has a very popular scheduling system. Now you have the full capability of the FranklinCovey scheduling system available with you on the tablet PC—ink notes, calendar, to-do list—and it all synchronizes with Microsoft Exchange. Another example would be Microsoft’s own Office XP suite. This is where we’ve integrated in ink functionality into e-mail, for example. You can send digital ink e-mail.
So far, mySAP CRM is the only enterprise-level CRM application for Windows XP Tablet PC Edition software. Why would a tablet PC with mySAP CRM installed be more useful than mySAP CRM on a traditional PC or laptop?
Linton: We’re very excited about the tablet support SAP is building in. SAP has done a lot of deep work and deep thinking to make it work well. We’ve worked closely with SAP. A lot of the users of mySAP CRM are very mobile. They’re walking down a factory floor or walking down a hall. Having a tablet PC allows the sales professional to have the CRM data with them right in front of the customer. That adds a lot of value. On top of that, with the tablet functionality that SAP is building in, sales professionals can enter data. They can easily look things up. They can mark up images. There are all kinds of useful scenarios. For example an insurance adjuster taking a picture of a wrecked car could mark it up right inside their mySAP CRM application on a tablet PC.
Gounares: We’ve put a lot of engineering effort into having a very easy to use software platform. We’ve focused very hard on making sure that not only is it easy to integrate ink into vendor applications, but that it is a scalable experience.
How long will it be before tablet computing is mainstream?
Linton: We’re trying to be as realistic as possible about the adoption of tablets. Alex made a good analogy about the adoption of the mouse. It took a few years for the mouse to be fully adopted and become mainstream. The same is going to be true with the tablet PC and digital pens. What we generally say is that within five years, most portables will have tablet functionality. Right now, you can only buy a tablet PC in the ultra-portable segment, with a single spindle (a single drive). Later this year, we’re going to see dual-spindle tablets, so we’ll start to see tablets in all the different categories of portable PCs.