Convergence: I'll take computer/phone over screen/paper

Microsoft's Jeff Raikes beat the drum this morning for the tablet PC. The preview of Office integration was underwhelming, though. Converting an inked address into an Outlook involved lassoing the thing, recognizing it, sending the recognized text to the clipboard, dropping it into Outlook, and then...just like you have to do today...dragging the elements (name, phone number, email) individually into their slots. Sigh. This isn't going to be the year of paper/screen convergence. Maybe not even the decade. Sitting next to Steve Gillmor, I dropped my yellow legal pad onto the floor and said: "Oops. There goes $2500." Absent a digital surface that has the qualities of paper that matter -- including being cheap and disposable -- I see digital ink as sometimes useful but not revolutionary.

Of course I've been wrong before. Most recently, I was wrong about WiFi access at the Javits Center. If it's here, I haven't found it yet. Steve was right. I might have to visit Bryant Park on the way home tonight in order to squirt this item. (That didn't work either, it must have been just a temporary thing for the film festival. Feeling a bit like Johnny Mnemonic -- gotta upload!)

All this got me realizing that despite the WiFi coverage that's emerging, it's the cellular phone network that will change more people's lives sooner. Although the tablet PC stuff had me yawning, Microsoft's demo of the Pocket PC Phone Edition brought me to the edge of my seat. Synching Outlook contacts and mail to a phone that has real telephony woven into it: that's my idea of a killer app. Back in 1996 [correction, it was 1994!] I wrote a BYTE cover story on computer-telephone integration (CTI). It was right around the corner then, and, unfortunately, it still is. Nobody in the corporate world can make a conference call on the first try, and our computers stand uselessly by offering no assistance. It's a scandal, really.

The installed base doomed CTI. Nobody wanted to upgrade that Definity switch in the basement to talk to the LAN. With cellphones replacing wired handsets, it's a whole new game. Software call control that works with your contact database, and wraps context around voice calls and email, is something nobody has yet and everybody needs yesterday. WiFi will continue to spread, and IP telephony will come along with it. But a cellphone with a universal inbox and software call control...there's a convergence that not only makes sense, but might even get real sooner rather than later.

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