Microsoft's Vista looks to get tablets on write track

With new desktop Windows, company hopes to solve some Tablet-tech problems, starting with your unintelligible scrawl. Photos: I know that writing

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LOS ANGELES--After years of trying to decipher your scribbles on its own, Microsoft is looking for a little help.

In Vista, the new incarnation of desktop Windows, due next year, the software giant will let people give the operating system examples of their own handwriting in an effort to improve handwriting recognition. The personalization feature, which is optional, is one of a number of Tablet PC enhancements disclosed this week as part of an updated test version of Vista.

Other new Tablet-specific features in this latest version of Vista include new "gestures" designed to make it easier to navigate through Web pages, send e-mail and manage other frequent tasks without having to switch to a keyboard.

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Many of the changes are designed to make the software more predictable than prior versions, and ultimately expand sales of Tablet PC systems. "You get frustrated, and you are going to stop using it," said Ian LeGrow, a group program manager in the Tablet PC unit.

Demand for tablet PCs has not lived up to the expectations set when the first designs debuted in 2002. Research firm IDC reports that a mere million units were sold through the end of 2004, with an estimated 600,000 tablets shipping this year. By comparison, Gartner's latest estimates suggest PC shipments worldwide in 2005 will exceed 202 million units, up 10.2 percent from the previous year.

Microsoft is trying to make tablet technology more pervasive in Windows Vista, as opposed to the niche product it's been to date. In order to take advantage of tablet features in Windows XP, a computer had to be running the specialized Tablet PC edition of the OS. With Vista, Microsoft appears ready to broaden this considerably.

"To date, developers have had problems redistributing Tablet PC technology," Microsoft said in a white paper posted to its developer Web site. "In part to address this, Tablet PC technologies are ubiquitous across all Windows Vista editions."

Others, however, cautioned that this might be overstating things. For example, if Microsoft releases a Starter Edition of Windows Vista, it's unlikely that Tablet PC features would be supported. Microsoft representatives said earlier this week that final packaging decisions have not yet been made.

Getting on the write track
For years, Microsoft has resisted allowing users to teach the software their individual writing style, preferring instead to continually expand its centralized base of thousands of handwriting samples in an effort to improve accuracy. This stance was not universally supported, with Chairman Bill Gates among those arguing that some personalized training would be useful.

In Vista, the "personalize handwriting recognition" feature presents two options. For those having a problem with a particular letter, word or phrase, there is a "target specific recognition errors" window. For those who are having more pervasive problems, there is an option to provide a more extensive set of samples--from A to Z.

With Vista, tablets will learn not only how users write particular words but also which words they turn to frequently, making those more likely guesses in cases where the software is unsure which word was meant. The software will also adopt Web sites and e-mail addresses that are not part of its standard dictionary.

The personalization option is available only for English-language tablets, with a separate background personalization option available for some Asian languages. Microsoft hopes to add other language support in future OS releases.

"For English, we've reached the point that personalization makes a lot of sense," LeGrow said. "It's a hard problem and we're working through all of the issues in this release."

Independent technology analyst Peter Glaskowsky praised the move to ensure that Tablet PCs learn from their individual users.

"That would be a great thing," he said. Glaskowsky is a longtime Apple Newton fan who only recently gave up his long-discontinued device in favor of a Tablet PC.

Glaskowsky said there are still areas in which his faithful Apple handheld outshines Microsoft's creation.

"They (Microsoft) should get eight or 10 of their top people and get them Newton MessagePad 2100s and make them use them instead of tablets for a couple of months," he said. "Then they could learn what they overlooked."

For example, he said, the Newton is much better about giving feedback about which handwriting is being recognized than, say, a Tablet PC running Microsoft's OneNote. But he conceded that he has grown to like some of the modern things that have come in the years since the Newton was crafted--things like multimedia abilities, wireless Internet access and color graphics.

Cleaning up the slate
Microsoft wants to do more than just improve handwriting recognition with the next go-round of Tablet. The goal is to address a host of little bugaboos that made the prior versions tough for users.

One example is a subtle change being made to the cursor: When a pen hovers over the screen, the cursor appears as a small droplet, so the user knows exactly where it is pointing. When a user taps the screen, it looks like the droplet has hit the water, causing a small ripple. A second tap produces a second ripple.

LeGrow said such changes are examples of the feedback a user needs to feel comfortable. With a mouse, it is pretty clear when a user clicks, so people rarely click more times than they mean to. Not so with a pen, he said.

Tablets in Vista will also get new navigational gestures, such as the ability to use the pen to pan through documents. Another gesture, called "flick," allows a user to quickly move a little bit up or down a page. While the standard option is to have flicks for moving up, down, back and forward, advanced users can program commands for additional flicks, such as copy and paste.

The plan is to introduce both the customization and new gestures slowly. After a week or so, a user might be introduced to flicks and offered the option to learn more and begin using them. After two weeks, a dialog box will offer the option of personalization.

One feature that is not in the latest build of Vista is an improved AutoComplete capability that will let the browser and other applications offer suggestions as someone starts writing a Web address or other information. That feature already exists with typing, and, with Vista, the concept will be extended to pen input as well, Microsoft said.

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