Collaboration cure

Tablet PC hands users a whole new way to work interactively

AMONG THE IT FOLKS we've talked with, there seem to be two primary reactions to Microsoft's born-again push for the Tablet PC. Most of them see it as a ho-hum, here-goes-Bill-again product in search of a market to conquer -- they're not interested and will likely not buy it. A minority truly believes the Tablet PC is the beginning of a new way of working together, much more than just a tweak to existing technology.

We're bullish on the Tablet PC because even before the public announcement, we were seeing brand-new applications being written for it that will let us do things we couldn't do before.

The real opportunity behind the Tablet PC involves collaboration and markup. Consider how two or three people work together on a project involving anything from engineering to marketing to corporate strategy. The collaborators get together and explore options by tossing out ideas, writing them down, and sketching them on whiteboards, flip charts, lunch napkins, or the backs of memos. One person puts up an idea, and another modifies it, striking out some parts and adding others. More ideas go up for review, discussion, and change. Through such back-and-forth discussion, an action plan emerges.

Consider two important characteristics of that process. First, it's synchronous: People have to interact in real time. A meeting, like a phone call, only happens when people coordinate their schedules to be available at the same time. Second, much of the communication is achieved via hand-drawn, much-modified graphics -- by one person writing over the other person's sketch.

Traditional groupware addresses the first issue through network-based collaborative workspaces. These have been helpful because they make the group communication and interaction asynchronous: One person sends a message or a document when he or she is ready, and the recipient reads it and acts upon it when he or she is available. That's efficient. Still, much of what passes for collaboration and groupware today is little more than glorified e-mail.

The second problem, impromptu graphics, isn't as amenable to any input system using a keyboard. Without the Tablet PC or something similar, creating diagrams quickly on a computer just isn't easy, and marking up others' graphics is tedious and time-consuming, a long way from instant changes. Simple e-mail doesn't coexist well with graphics because it's also keyboard-based. Without a Tablet PC, the best one can do is sketch a picture on paper, scan it, digitize it onto the network, then e-mail it as an attachment or Or one can fax it. That's a cumbersome, one-way process that's a long way from collaboration.

While reviewing recent Tablet PCs from HP and Fujitsu (See " New faces for PCs "), we got a chance to use and see beta versions of several third-party applications that hold the promise of simplifying life for many workgroups. Many of these new apps allow individuals to separately mark-up documents, images, and graphics in layers, yet still see the original and easily sort out changes. Apparently, digital ink simplifies a lot of tasks.

Among them, Corel's Grafigo lets you take a digital image or document and mark it up on onionskinlike overlays that can be easily hidden or shown. WebEx Meeting Center offers wireless interactivity that removes the one-way barrier -- we could look, but we couldn't really interact -- from demonstrations and presentations.

We found Alias Wavefront's Alias Sketchbook, a drawing program, to be stylus-friendly, right down to using stylus gestures to select tools and menu options. The ability to draw boxes or circles that are recognized and instantly turned into true boxes and circles is a lot more useful than we'd thought.

TabletPlanner, a handy datebook and organizer from Franklin Covey, works with digital ink and handwriting much like a paper-based organizer, while adding the computer's searching, storage, and group calendaring capabilities.

Groove Networks, in Beverly, Mass., is adapting its peer-to-peer collaboration system to Tablet PC. Ray Ozzie, Groove's CEO (and the creator of Lotus Notes) says, "Almost daily I have conversations on the phone with business associates and partners where I could use the ability to sketch a picture or visually share and annotate a document to enhance the communication."

Ozzie agrees that the Tablet PC can help users work more naturally across business boundaries, reducing the cost of coordination and accelerating decision making.

The most complex Tablet PC application we've seen is a beta version of a CRM program from SAP that integrates a series of tasks into a single, swift process. Using a Tablet PC, a salesperson sitting with a customer can write up an order that includes marked-up, annotated pictures of the items being ordered. When everything is complete, the buyer can sign the order, using digital ink, right on the Tablet PC. Then, as the transaction is completed, the application creates a printable Word document that includes the order form, pictures, and signature. This document can be printed out on the spot. It's a slick, efficient process.

Let's not forget the promise of Microsoft's recently unveiled OneNote(see " The Big Bang "). A new addition to the Microsoft Office family, OneNote will debut in mid-2003. Designed for taking notes and conducting research, this application fits somewhere between the Tablet PC's Journal application and Microsoft Word. Besides text, OneNote can handle and integrate rich media, including digital ink, audio, HTML, and graphics. And while OneNote will work on any PC, the Tablet PC's digital ink capabilities for handwriting and diagramming make it shine.

With the application, users can make audio recordings of meetings and simultaneously take notes, using either keyboard or handwriting input. When the sound is played back, OneNote automatically synchronizes and recreates on-screen notes at the exact point in the audio recording where those notes were made. Also, users can click on a note and hear the audio that was recorded when they entered those notes.

None of the programs we've used or seen demonstrated was in its final form, but each showed how the Tablet PC can open documents and images of all kinds to intensive markup and group collaboration. In particular, they showed how much easier and faster it is to handwrite a line, circle, or arrow than to use a keyboard to try to convey the same idea in words. The power of the squiggle -- it's finally available on computers!

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