When Microsoft and their partners launched Tablet PC five years ago, there was a lot of hope that new user interfaces and applications would be spilling out like ink from a fountain pen. Initial excitement was high among independent software vendors ( ISV ) to be among the first of a potentially explosive new growth area. Microsoft launched a contest to spur innovation and development ( called Think In Ink ), and strongly encouraged developers to begin making their existing applications ink-aware and ink-enabled. Microsoft wanted developers to be thinking outside the box about how ink could be used. The proverbial writing was on the wall. For Tablet PC technology to really take it off, there needed to be a library of software ready to take advantage of it. For ISVs to sink labor into new and existing applications, it needed customers who were going to be buying Tablet PCs in droves. The pump was primed and ready. Five years later, though, Tablet PC software appears to have stagnated.
Before we go any further, let’s take a look at some of the vendors of the past five years:
- Franklin Covey – initially released Tablet Planner in November 2002, as an ink-based planning system written by Agilix with a Franklin Covey time management focus. It has since been renamed PlanPlus for Windows, and has not seen an update for several years, with the exception of a Vista based gadget.
- Agilix – In 2003, they came to market with GoBinder, an ink-based planning system largely targeted to students. In addition, Agilix worked with Microsoft to develop and release InfiNotes, an SDK to make it easier and quicker for developers to build ink-enabled notetaking applications. InfiNotes impact can be seen in such applications as Tablet Enhancements for Outlook and Ed Holloway’s Ink Blog plug-in for Windows Live Writer. Agilix last released GoBinder 2006 in 2005 and has not released anything new with Infinotes since its initial offering.
- xThink – MathJournal and Calculator has been on the scene from the beginning, with release updates to their two products along the way
- MindJet – added inking capability to MindManager in 2003, thus opening their product to an even wider audience. MindManager continues to get upgraded, with its Tablet PC features remaining core functionality.
- EverNote – EverNote produces note-taking software that is also ink-enabled, as well as the popular RitePen and RiteForm applications, which have been very popular TIP alternatives from day 1, and going back several years before Tablet PC was launched. EverNote uses their own inking technology in EverNote Plus and RitePen, relying on their own recognition engine.
- Einstein Technologies – came on the scene in 2003 to provide inking solutions for Microsoft’s Outlook. Their Tablet Enhancements for Outlook has continually been updated over the years to also include notetaking , mapping, audio recording, etc. Einstein Tech has continues to do work in the Tablet PC space providing solutions to enhance other applications like OneNote.
- Active Ink Software – one of the first companies to offer a forms program to make it easier for people to create ink-enabled forms to help replace paper-based forms. They produce a designer tool, a client application for filling out forms, and a form control for 3rd party software vendors to include in their applications. They have released several feature upgrades over the years.
- Mi-Co – a forms collection based Tablet PC application largely focused on the construction, medical, and field force space.
- Active Words – a keyboard shortcut program designed to launch programs and substitute text. They launched an add-in called Ink Pad several years ago that kicks off the shortcuts and text substitution with the stroke of a pen. It has been upgraded several times over the years with enhancements to the pop-out pad and is currently at version 2.0 right now.
- Jumping Minds Software – Jumping Minds Software, owned by Loren Heiny, has been around the Tablet PC space from the beginning. They produce Tablet PC software mostly geared around the education space, but Loren also is major player in helping push the experience of ink on the web.
- Mind and Machines – one of the finalists of Microsoft’s Think in Ink contest that never did much with their image annotating software called p’Ink. Their site is no longer functional, and no one has heard anything out of p’Ink for several years
- Bluebeam – entered the market last year by adding Tablet PC functionality to the PDF annotating application, PDF Revu
- Grahl Software – makers of the very popular PDF annotating software PDF Annotator. It is getting frequent updates.
- Orange Guava – Orange Guava was quite the hit coming out of the Think In Ink contest, creating virtual desktops, pie shaped navigation schemes, Inkable Keys, and more. Everything was driven from a pen interface. However, not much has come out of Orange Guava since 2004, but the downloads are still available. Orange Guava’s impact can be seen in Active Words InkPad.
- Ambient Design – they were the winners of Microsoft’s Think In Ink Contest with their painting package, ArtRage. It features a unique pie navigation built especially for pen navigation, and they have since come out with a Mac OS X version, and have proven to be quite successful in and outside of the Tablet PC space
- Alias Sketchbook – a paint program that was one of the first ISVs to enter the Tablet PC space. Sketchbook got purchased by AutoDesk, and the product has not seen much action in several years.
- Microsoft’s Office and OneNote – Microsoft has been very slow to ink-enable their ever popular PIM application, Outlook. Until recently, the only thing you could ink in Outlook was an email. Outlook 2007 brought inkable notes, but that has been about it. Einstein Technologies has fit that need with Tablet Enhancements for Outlook. OneNote, on the other hand, has taken the notetaking space by storm, supporting ink notetaking in OneNote 2003 and OneNote 2007. By all accounts, they pretty much own the space now, facing only minor competition from EverNote.
- abletFactory – they have been a player in the pen market for quite a while, dating back before Tablet PCs were released. abletFactory was a early impact vendor in enhancing the Tablet PC user dictionary by supply vertically focused words that would enhance the recognition dictionary. abletFactory still has those dictionaries for sale, but they are now primarily focused on building Tablet PC applications that are add-on’s to OneNote geared to the medical, legal, and real estate vertical markets.
- TabletPCPost.com – established in 2003 as the go-to source for Tablet PC application downloads. There are many vendors listed on TabletPCPost not covered in this article, so it is definitely worth looking at.
Although not an exhaustive list of vendors and solutions, what is clearly seen is that there has not been much happening in the realm of 3rd party Tablet PC development for several years, at least what we are able to follow through the most visible companies. Generally speaking, new product releases have given way to maintenance / feature releases of existing software. Some vendors have joined the space over the years ( Bluebeam for example), with some vendors pretty much leaving the space altogether ( Agilix, p’Ink, Orange Guava, etc ). Agilix is a notable one because of the large role they played in the space early on, and are now largely focused on business outside of tablet. Part of Agilix’s struggle, ironically, was Microsoft’s own entry in to the Tablet PC note-taking space – OneNote
What is not readily seen is the impact in the enterprise market, where software development in the vertical space appears to gaining momentum as Tablet PCs make headway in to the enterprise. The focus there is on medical, real estate, constructions, education, and field force. From news reports that we read and report on, companies like DyKnow, Active Ink, Field2Base, Bluebeam, Mi-Corporation appear to excelling there. There are also vendors developing Tablet PC vertical solutions for the enterprise that will always fly under the radar. Unfortunately, getting a handle on that data is quite difficult.
Outside of the enterprise space, what has happened?
First of all, a lack of sales. With an oft-quoted 2 million deployed Tablet PCs over the past five years, there has not been enough growth from year to year to justify new application development. Although the software ecosystem was coming up to speed over the years, the lack of sales slowed the pace, and caused ISVs to reallocate their resources. I talked to one ISV the other day, who will remain nameless, and he told me that they don’t plan on making any Tablet PC specific improvements to their software due to the tablet market being small. Many in the space attribute the lack of sales to misfires in marketing. Blame in this area includes Microsoft, OEMs, and ISVs themselves. With a widely-held, and wrongly placed, perception that Tablet PCs are vertical-only solutions, in varying degrees, all three players are to blame. Warner will be touching on marketing issues in another article, so I won’t delve into that much more. Suffice it to say, sales, or the lack of them, has a tremendous trickling down effect, has consequently slowed new application development, and has largely resulted in the market seeing just feature upgrades on existing products.
Secondly, many vendors have come to recognize that success in the tablet space is going to happen as a result of ink-enabling existing products, thus opening up their products to an even larger audience. That is where we are seeing most of the activity. For example, Einstein Technologies success has occurred because Microsoft has yet to fully ink-enable their own products. Einstein Technologies has continued this practice by highlighting missing features in products and building add-on solutions like OneNote Calendar. Bluebeam has been a hit this year because they added ink annotating functionality to an already existing product, and increased market share for a product previously ignored by the tablet community. It didn’t require them to reinvent the wheel, just add new functionality. Likewise, in 2003, MindJet added inking capability to their popular MindManager application , and thus opened the door to an audience unfamiliar with mindmapping. ActiveWords has done the same thing: they took a keyboard driven short-cut program, added an ink-interface to it, and it has become quite the rage among Tablet PC users. Although there is definitely a place for dedicated Tablet PC applications ( Calculator, Math Journal, Ink Blog Plug-In and forms applications), the greatest success has come in ink-enabling existing applications, and I anticipate that trend to continue.
Third, as we’ve seen in the past two years, activity is picking up in the touch software realm. Software companies are likely shifting focus to put more emphasis on optimizing for touch, developing touch / multi-touch applications, etc. It certainly is where the buzz is, and any prudent ISV is going to follow the buzz.
Fourth, Microsoft shares much of the blame here, and in several ways. First, Microsoft has failed to fully embrace ink in their own operating system and applications. Applications central to the Windows experience like Outlook Express, Windows Live Mail, Windows Live Photo Gallery, Search, Contacts, Calendar, etc don’t support ink at all and have not since Tablet PC was released in 2002. Why can’t I annotate a picture in Photo Gallery using my pen and ink? Vista has seen good improvements in recognition and experience, but in 2007 it still feels as much like an add-on experience as it did in 2002. In addition to their operating system, Microsoft has failed to ink-enable their own core applications like Outlook, leaving it to third-parties to show them how it should be done. Granted, they’ve slowly improved the experience over the years, but it is not what you would expect being five years out. When Microsoft’s cash cow doesn’t support ink in the way Microsoft’s Tablet PC team was preaching to the ISV community, what else would we expect to happen, except to see ISVs move on. Second, as Microsoft has begun rolling out their Windows Live services and taking aggressive action in the web space, we are not seeing ink deployed as a part of the overall user experience. Where’s ink in Windows Live Hotmail for example? Meanwhile, Microsoft is pushing developers to develop ink based Silverlight applications, but not making ink a part of their own web based applications.
I know first-hand that Microsoft’s Tablet PC team certainly worked hard to spur development among the ISV partner community. I’m sure there are war stories we’ll never hear about and lots of other issues at play, but when you couple stagnating sales with a natural playing out of application development vs needs, marketing missteps along the way, and Microsoft’s own unwillingness to fully embrace ink in its own applications and operating system, it is easy to see how we ended up where we are in regards to software.
What does this mean for the future? I’m still quite optimistic about the future of Tablet software, but I’m becoming more of a realist. I anticipate some natural bounce from touch based software to make its way to tablet as consumers begin to make feature requests to ISVs. I expect Tablet PC feature growth to occur mainly in the ink-enabling area, and if Microsoft ever ink-enabled their own applications, we would see a tremendous amount of growth just from that. Enterprise vertical growth is something to definitely watch, as Tablets make more headway into vertical spaces. I don’t envision a healthy growing ecosystem of dedicated Tablet PC apps like we see with Pocket PCs and Windows Mobile smartphones. I foresee tablet features being implemented slowly behind the scenes in the software we use everyday, and that is a very, very good thing. As we watch applications move to the web, either as rich clients or intelligent syncing applications, the opportunities for tablet technology continues to widen. The landscape is definitely changing, but it is one ripe for the picking.