New Tools for Tablet PC Developers

REDMOND, Wash., Oct. 29, 2003 — It doesn’t take long for independent software vendors (ISVs) to think up cool applications to put on new technology platforms. Just name the form factor — notebooks, PDAs, cell phones, wearable computers — for each, new ways to use them and improved workflow based on them seem to pop up continually.

It’s no different with the Tablet PC. The digital ink capabilities of the Tablet PC have spawned innovative applications that run the spectrum from collaboration, graphics, games, music translation, drawing and more. At the launch of Tablet PC in New York in late 2002, there were 27 Microsoft partner ISVs (independent software vendors) who had already developed and contributed applications to run on the Microsoft Windows XP for Tablet PC Edition platform. Today, there are more than 100.

Tablet PC users can expect the creativity to accelerate. This week, at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles, Microsoft announced the availability of the new Tablet PC software development kit (SDK) version 1.7. The SDK is designed to make it easier for developers to create rich, ink-enabled applications by providing new and improved tools such as support for Web- or HTML-based pages, real-time stylus and ink support, a context tagging tool to define data field types without getting deep into code and writing recognition enhancements. The Tablet PC SDK 1.7 is being made available in an alpha version to PDC attendees, and will be available for download in the second quarter of 2004.

Microsoft is also announcing a contest for Tablet PC application developers worldwide. A two-year sports car lease and a check for US$15,000 are among the prizes being offered to developers who create the best Tablet PC power toys in the “Does Your Code Think in Ink?” contest, which began this week. Submissions will be accepted through Jan. 31, 2004 and judged by editors from PC Magazine.

Stan Leszynski, CEO and Chief Software Architect at the Leszynski Group, says he is excited to put the SDK to use. As a long-time Microsoft ISV and Tablet PC early adopter, his development team has authored some of the most popular Tablet PC productivity tools, including: several Power Toys (additional functionality programs offered by Microsoft after a product has been released to manufacturing), including the Microsoft Snipping Tool, which allows the user to select, annotate and e-mail content from any Web site or document as if it were cut from paper, and the Tablet PC Pool billiards game, the first game designed specifically for the Tablet PC; NoteTalk, which enables users to collect meeting notes, voice notes, and document markup into a permanent record; and components for software developers that include a shape recognition toolkit and an ink-signature capture component.

Leszynski says the tools in the new SDK will help ISVS and corporate developers to make Tablet PC applications even better.

“The new SDK is a great step forward,” says Leszynski. “The pen input and writing recognition enhancements made to the SDK mean that we as developers won’t have to make those enhancements ourselves. As Microsoft fine-tunes the ink input and recognition experiences, this reduces the development costs and increases Tablet PC return on investment for our customers.”

More apps can be made ‘ink-aware’

Developing applications for the Tablet PC opens up new opportunities for end-user productivity gains. In addition to keyboard and mouse input, the Tablet PC applications can also accept input from the stylus. This gives software developers four more areas of functionality to consider:

  • Pen — Windows XP for Tablet PC Edition contains application program interfaces (APIs) to communicate with the stylus, providing information such as its location, stroke, pressure, etc.

  • Ink — Rendering each stylus mark, maintaining its look, storing and compressing it, turning it into a GIF file

  • Handwriting recognition — APIs recognize stroke combinations that create handwritten characters. This can convert the handwriting into text and the ability to store text keywords ‘behind’ ink, making the handwriting searchable.

  • Gestures — Movements of the pen that can be translated into commands, such as tap-and-hold to open a window, or a pen flick to turn the page

Cory Linton, product manager on the Tablet PC team at Microsoft, says the new SDK gives developers the ability to make their applications take full advantage of Tablet PC functionality.

“The new SDK allows you to make Web or HTML-based applications ink-ready, and make text fields ink-aware in any Windows-based application,” Linton says. “Not only do these capabilities make Tablet PC applications easier to develop, they make them easier for the end-user too. We should see a new set of innovative Tablet PC apps come out that will only reinforce the value of the Tablet PC platform.”

Leszynski Group, Inc. is based in Bellevue, Wash and is one of the ISVs that recognized the potential of the Tablet PC early on. “We are flaming Tablet PC champions and you won’t find anyone more bullish about the Tablet PC than us,” Leszynski says. “We were developing for the Tablet PC long before it shipped, and we constantly find new ways to make the Tablet PC rock in the customer space. Our software – such as our healthcare application for New York State – and our inventions – such as our shape recognition engine inShape – have been featured in Bill Gates’ keynotes, beginning with the Tablet PC launch in New York last year.”

Along with developing products distributed under the Microsoft name, Leszynski’s team handles customized enterprise applications designed for the Tablet PC, as well as developing its own Tablet PC-based products. Its Special Investigations application, developed for the State of New York, moved the investigation of client-related incidents in state mental healthcare facilities from a paper-based workflow to one that takes advantage of both the writing and drawing capabilities of the Tablet PC. Replacing cumbersome and inconsistent paper reports, the Tablet PC form factor allows on-the-scene information gathering, and the Windows XP backbone allows secure reporting to a centralized data collection and analysis system. Among the results: far superior data quality and hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in cost savings.

SDK brings more style to the stylus

While Leszynski acknowledges the value of each improvement in the new SDK, he is most enthusiastic about advancements in working with the stylus.

“This SDK does a great job giving developers the ability to control the stylus and all the rendering related to the stylus at a granular level,” he says. “We’ve got the ability now to hook into the stylus before anything is drawn and make inferences through shape recognition or gesture recognition. We can make inferences from the stylus up — in the past we used to know about the stroke when it was done, now we can know about it as it is drawn. This opens up outstanding new opportunities for the enhancement of mobile workflows.”

Cursivecode, a Seattle-based ISV, also has received acclaim for its Tablet PC applications. One of the more notable is a wine-ordering system for the Aureole restaurant in Las Vegas, which stores more than 50,000 bottles from about 4,000 vintages and varieties in a four-story “wine tower.” Rather than wielding a 100-page wine list, customers use a Tablet PC to search for a desired type of wine, find multimedia tasting reviews on each type, view special promotions and place their order. They can then watch by wireless streaming video as the bottle is selected from the tower to be brought to the table. The system also handles inventory management for the restaurant, letting it offer real-time information such as notification that a wine variety has just sold out.

Cursivecode also has a beta deployment at Safeco Field, the Seattle Mariners’ baseball stadium. Cursivecode applications on Tablet PCs are used in the luxury suites to allow patrons to order merchandise and food, view instant replays of the on-field action, and conduct business, if desired.

Andi Rusu, partner and cofounder at Cursivecode, says he was impressed with what he saw.

“The new SDK sheds light on what some possibilities are for improving the user experience,” he says. “The support for Web or HTML documents is great — it’s one of the things we’re going to make use of for sure.”

“We’re mainly focused on front-end stuff, building products geared toward the user. In particular, the stylus-on-demand enhancements are really a big step forward. The new SDK will make the Tablet PC a much better experience all around, for both developers and users. It’s going to be greatly improved.”

Making apps think in ink

Linton says that’s the kind of thinking that he hopes will inspire innovative submissions to the “Does Your Code Think in Ink?” contest.

“The contest serves a number of purposes, not least of which is to stir people’s creative juices in a fun way,” Linton says. “It also gives people with this kind of creative talent an opportunity to be recognized for their abilities. From our side, contests like this tend to show us that there are a lot of ways to use our technologies that we haven’t even thought of.”

A preliminary panel of judges from the Tablet PC product team will test submissions received before Jan. 31, and then select 15 semifinalists. These will then be rated by staffers at PC Magazine, who will judge each based on criteria such as perceived usefulness to the greatest number of users, innovative use of the stylus and “downloadability” for the end user. Prize winners will be announced in February.

To enter the contest, complete the online entry form and upload the executable file at http://www.doesyourcodethinkinink.com/ .