Foley on Microsoft

Of Mice and Pen: Microsoft's Latest Digital Ink Push

Microsoft hopes that the digital ink trend will finally find traction as new features for digital note takers will be included in the Windows 10 Anniversary update.

For well more than two decades, Microsoft has invested heavily in natural UIs of all kinds, ranging from touch to speech recognition and computer vision.

Microsoft is stepping up its campaign to use digital pens with PCs, tablets -- and perhaps phablets and phones -- more intuitive and desirable. Microsoft has championed to greater and lesser extents over the years the concept of digital ink. Do you remember Windows for Pen Computing, which debuted in 1992 and was supplanted a decade later by Windows XP Tablet PC Edition? After those effectively flopped, with some niche exceptions in certain verticals, Microsoft went back to the drawing board. Now Microsoft sees digital ink as a key opportunity to advance the use of computers and devices. The reason: The pen is another way to distinguish its hardware and software. Yes, I know that's not what Microsoft officials say is happening. They claim all users are naturally inclined to write and draw, and that it makes sense to support those inclinations on their computing devices. But I'm not sure whether digital pens are the chicken or the egg here.

Until a year ago or so, I still took all of my notes, both work and personal, on paper using a real pen. I finally weaned myself from this practice. As a result, I almost never use ballpoint pens or paper for writing anything anymore. Given my new input habits, Microsoft's contention that we all commonly doodle, make lists and create sticky notes for ourselves using pen and paper doesn't resonate with me. But that doesn't mean Microsoft isn't going to continue to try to get all of us to acknowledge our handwriting-centric tendencies.

With the coming Windows 10 Anniversary update, Microsoft is all in with its pens-for-one-and-all campaign with Windows Ink.

Microsoft is adding a new Ink Workspace to the Anniversary update due this summer. That environment will be accessible by pressing the top button on a pen. It's meant to get users to more easily find and use ink-centric-like Sticky Notes, Sketchpad and Screen Sketch screenshot markup features. There's also a "Get more Pen apps" link that takes users to the Windows Store in search of additional pen-­enabled titles created by developers with access to Microsoft's new Windows Ink-related tooling.

The digital ink emphasis goes beyond the core OS. Microsoft is improving pen support for its Edge browser, Maps and Office apps beyond OneNote, which has incorporated support for pen input since the get-go. Microsoft also is working with Wacom to provide a Windows Ink-compatible pen via various retailers this holiday season. Microsoft quietly bought digital-pen technology from N-Trig last year as part of its quest to make pens a built-in component of its Surface devices.

At the Build conference in San Francisco, Microsoft said it's making available to app developers tools, programming interfaces and documentation to encourage them to build ink and digital pen support into as many new programs and services as they can.

As I've noted before, Microsoft management's decision to move the company's Devices Group under Windows chief Terry Myerson has meant the Windows team is prioritizing features in its releases that the hardware team wants. Because the hardware team opted to make pens an intrinsic part of the Surface experience, digital pen/ink support is at the top of the Windows 10 Anniversary feature list. And because Microsoft's PC/device partners also will want in on the Anniversary update action, expect to see more OEM devices of all sizes that ship with pens moving forward.

Call me a luddite (and many do), but I find keeping track of $50 or so pens to be more trouble than it's worth. If I were a digital artist/creative, of course I'd want my Windows device to be pen- and ink-ready. But for the rest of us, I still feel like pens are more gimmick than must-have tools. I say give me my mouse and get off my lawn. What's your take?

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She's the author of "Microsoft 2.0" (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), which examines what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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