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The GBM Interview: N-Trig’s Lenny Englehardt



Last month, I had the opportunity to speak with Lenny Englehardt,  N-Trig’s Vice President of Business Development. We talked about a number of issues on the mind of GBM readers, and as you’ll see, Mr. Englehardt was not the least bit shy in sharing his opinion on number of topics like small form factor devices, Microsoft, and Apple.

We had such a good conversation that we’re planning a special podcast to discuss these items in more depth, as well as follow-up with some more reader questions. Follow the Read More link for the complete interview.

On Motion Computing, WriteTouch:
We’ve been working with Motion Computing for a long time, have a good relationship with them.  Together with Motion, N-Trig was the only company that could get Microsoft a multi-touch dual mode pen and touch implementation in the 2005 timeframe. We are working with Motion right now. In terms of the LE1700 WriteTouch being discontinued, both companies reached a decision to focus on future products rather than WriteTouch. WriteTouch was using a previous generation of N-Trig hardware that is now out dated, and couldn’t be upgraded for Multi Touch. We have a good relationship with them.

On Dell, Pricing, and Competitors
Dell didn’t ask us about their pricing. They have a strategy behind that, and they are well aware of the comments about pricing being too high. They have a game plan for the next several months and beyond. N-trig has several pricing options for customizing the digitizer. N-Trig is not the reason the Dell is priced the way it is. Take the Lenovo X61 Tablet PC as an example: it has well over $100 in digitizer components, pen system, touch, and high end optics for the resistive part. N-Trig, on the other hand, is comparable or lower with our competitors when comparing apples to apples, meaning all system components will get full pen and touch, high end optics, writing surface and stylus. Others don’t have capacitive touch or multi touch.

On Expanding to Other OEMs
We are working hard with other OEMs, and are not exclusive with Dell. Yes, you are likely to see N-Trig in other products this year and at CES 09′

On Small Form Factor Devices
We can make the digitizer smaller than seven inches. We are not sure if the market can justify small form factor devices with digitizers like N-Trig, though. We see more potential in the 7  to 8.9 inch screen size. Users don’t really need an active stylus with hover on a screen under 7”. Other touch screens without pen are good enough. It is a very interesting market opportunity. If we had some dialogue with OEMs, we will would pursue it. There is interest from OEMs in producing a good touch / ink digitizer for that form factor size. The only caution is if there is really a market opportunity for a third device, like a UMPC, when you have  good phone and a Tablet PC. I’m not sure. Maybe the segment is where a desktop and UMPC are used.

On Pressure Sensitivity
Our digitizers are pressure sensitive. Any apps that accept pressure sensitivity will show up. We are happy to work with developers to ensure compatibility to WinTab. For Windows pressure messages, WinTab is out of date and is a legacy. ISV’s should work with N-trig and MS to make sure pressure is implemented.

On Multi-Touch
We are very interested in making sure that ISV’s take advantage of the gestures. We will have an API /SDK for software developers to take advantage of the gestures. Thanks to Steve Jobs, folks are seeing the potential for multi-touch applications. The best thing to happen to N-trig was Apple’s introduction of the iPhone, MacBook Air.

On The Biggest Opportunity for ISVs
For basic standard apps: photographs, annotating images, graphic space. In the business space: zoom on an email, spreadsheets, presentations, graphs, scroll for large word doc’s;  and of course, medical applications.  We have the capability for multi-touch today, we want ISVs to go begin thinking that way. The best thing to happen to ink is the introduction of multi-touch. Apple is doing it on the touchpad, we are doing it on the screen. That is exciting.

On Vectoring Issues and Microsoft 
Our palm rejection technology is quite sophisticated. The decision to accept touch input is being handled by two main modes of operation: With XP, we use auto mode, double tap switches between touch and pen. With Vista, it is dual-mode: always going back to the original digitizer, the pen has priority all the time.  Resting your hand on the screen while writing will not register anything. Our expectation was that Microsoft would do more with handling dual-mode, and basically ignore all inputs when writing. Palm rejection on the XT is pretty good, certainly you can force vectoring to happen, though. On the Dell XT, the user can select between auto and dual-mode. We give OEMs the option to select which way to go as a default: ignore Vista’s handling and go straight to auto mode, or turn on dual-mode. The default fall back is the auto mode.

We will work to improve palm rejection in dual-mode regardless of what Microsoft has in store for future versions of Windows.  We are enhancing palm rejection on our own, independent of Microsoft. Improvements will be ready sooner than one might expect..stay tuned.

Some questions from readers:

In late January, Wacom shipped the Cintiq 12WX for $999; here in southern California, Fry’s Electronics retail (and online) sold out of their stock within a week. How do you see the market for LCD based digitizing tablets?
If you mean just a standalone pad this is not our market, if you are referring to a screen with touch, multi touch and pen it could be very interesting, but we are not looking for more niche markets so I think first and foremost we will approach the notebook/convertible space from 7-17” and also the AIO (all in one) space. This ensures that there are apps in the box that use multi touch. Once there is a critical mass of apps, lcd’s with multi touch and pen make sense because the computers they get connected to will have apps and there will be enough market awareness. Pen only is not our playing field.

How has the advent of the iPhone affected your market space: in cellular phones? in UMPC hardware? in Tablet PC’s? How about the inclusion of multi-touch track pads in the new Mac Book Air/Pro?
As mentioned above, we thank Apple for the efforts in generating great multi touch products. We wish Microsoft would do more and point out that what Apple is doing on the touch pad, we are doing on the screen.

What do you think of the current state-of-the-art of Vista Tablet PC OS functionality?
Great steps for pen and touch, not enough traction in their own software apps like Outlook, PowerPoint etc.. Vista as an OS is not a very user friendly product, way too many crashes, hangs etc. They don’t seem to be keen to scrub it and flush out all the issues. If they would push ink in their own apps and to ISV’s it would be great. The average consumer and enterprise user still doesn’t  know that Microsoft has touch and ink capabilities built into Vista, while everyone knows how the iPhone and MacBook Air work. Redmond marketing is nowhere to be seen.

What new categories of use cases, or applications, do you see driving demand for your technology?
Everything to do with digital images and media management, manipulation, reproduction and more — I mean pictures with annotations, storybooks/boards personal and profession being created in minutes using touch and ink.  You’ll work on your desktop as though it was your desk. Multi touch will also enable multiple user scenarios on screens larger than 17” and that opens up a lot of opportunities.

In the corporate space it will be more prevalent for data manipulation, showing graphs etc.. There is a whole lot that can be done with ink that isn’t being done now simply because people don’t ink is available out of the box in Vista and pretty soon it will be really affordable and mainstream. I have never heard anyone say that the ink was a waste of time, quite the opposite when you send an annotated presentation, document or spreadsheet the people on the receiving end feel they have received some personal attention from you. Again, Microsoft could do so much more if they were really committed. Too bad Apple hasn’t added ink, because they would market it the way they have pushed multi touch and it would be a big hit!!

I can give you an example: I am working on finishing my basement now at home and I send my comments on the plans directly to the architect using ink.  She is thrilled with the feedback and the handwritten notes are stored in OneNote so I can track the project progress easily.

Some months ago, I thought I read that their new digitizer would work with a screen protector. The issue is that Vikuiti has an anti-reflection coating.  Some anti-reflection coatings are metallic.  I don’t think that 3M uses that technology on Vikuiti, but I don’t know that for certain.
Not on our road map, probably some confusion with 3M products in this space. The digitizer may still be fully functional even with the protector, at least the stylus should work without any trouble, touch would have to be checked.  ( This reader has since tested it out and found compatibility issues with the Vikuiti protector.

It would be interesting to hear what N-trig says about the durability of their screen overlay and if they have any reservations about screen protectors. What about support for Vikuiti and 3M screen protectors?
Our system was tested to meet standard industry spec’s for durability by Dell and there is no concern for normal touch and pen usage, I couldn’t comment on the Vikuiti products since they are not ours. The user should ask 3M to test their product on a Dell Latitude XT

We are working on additional questions from readers that needed some more research


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