A Lovely Tablet Computing Idea

Note that I didn’t say ‘slate computing’ as more and more have done since “the impending Apple Slate”” was mentioned (including Steve Ballmer oh-gosh-why-am-I-not-surprised). It’ll probably happen, similarly to the iPod name, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves in the rush to be the first to embrace the latest buzzword.

So, I was reading this article earlier today, and I noticed the patent filing links towards the bottom, the first of which rather caught my eye. “Displaying a portion of an electronic document on a touchscreen display”, eh? Sounds quite similar to something I worked on ten years ago at my very first employer: enotate, from Informal Software.

Enotate worked on the basis of using a touch-input display (at that time, a Palm, Handspring, or Windows CE handheld) to provide pen-based annotation input to existing documents. There was a plain Windows application which would let you draw on a blank slate or on top of an image of some kind, and there were hooks (very complex hooks, ouch) into the principal MS Office applications: Word, PowerPoint, and Excel.

The idea was that you would be able to use your PDA to make annotations directly to the digital documents in the same manner that you would when using pen and paper; rather than printing, annotating, then re-importing somehow, your annotations would be stored as part of the original document. A section of the document (indicated on-screen on the PC) would be visible on the PDA, and you could move and resize this section as desired to make your annotations. These could be hidden/revealed on demand, etc. In the case of PowerPoint presentations, the functionality was so useful that we even developed a side-product, enotate PowerPoint Presenter, with additional functionality designed to let you run your presentation using your PDA. You could switch slides and annotate directly using the stylus, but you could also flip back & forth purely on the PDA to check what was coming up next, all without turning to glance at the screen behind you (or at a conspicuous laptop in front of you) at all.

“What has this to do with a tablet?” I hear you ask. Well, the PDA’s small form factor really wasn’t ideal. Nor was its fairly limited ability to handle large digital documents internally; the device existed only as a HID peripheral for a PC. So we set about looking at a larger form factor with more powerful capabilities of its own: something we gave the code-name of enopad. The sample device we developed in late 2000/early 2001 used an embedded PowerPC CPU & chipset with a Linux system on top. We had a 7” stylus-based touchscreen (this was ten years ago, remember) for which I developed a framebuffer-based, menu/icon-driven user interface which was designed as a hybrid of the Palm and OS X interfaces. It was to have a paging home screen similar to that of the iPhone (rather than Palm’s vertically-scrolling version), and the sample enotate application for it was able to provide a large-screen, wireless-networked version of the regular enotate application. This form factor made working with Word and Excel documents so much easier: no more messy zooms required to do basic editing, and the protocols we designed were easy to implement on the device’s Linux core.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of all this was that enotate grew out of a small sample application developed fairly quickly in order to show potential investors a simple application of the much more involved technology the company’s founder, Dr. Ian Cullimore (incidentally, the creator of the DIP/Atari Portfolio), wanted to bring to market. The company intended to bring informal interfaces to the real world, but sadly fell victim to the great venture-capital drought following the burst of the dot-com bubble.

The technology is still there though. And it might just make sense for Apple to start talking to Ian about some of his ideas. After all, they were interested back in 2001; we simply required an OS X application (which we didn’t have at the time) to get an interview with Steve, or so we were told.

It makes me wonder: just what else might have come to market ten years ago, if it weren’t for the bankers and the VCs all rushing to cash in, then bailing out at the first sign of trouble.

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