This week's IT extravaganza introduces the latest generation of writable-screen PCs, smart phones and personal digital assistants – all the tools you need to make the paperless office a reality
Tablet PC from Microsoft
Microsoft is pretty excited about its new Tablet PC, believing it will change the way people interact with their computers. Instead of typing and clicking, users input data by writing and drawing directly onto a Tablet laptop's special screen using a customised pen. In theory, this means that you can use a Tablet device like a paper notebook, scribbling away in conferences, on the street or in front of the TV. Since people learn to use a pen long before they start typing, Microsoft hopes the the system will be technophobe-friendly.

The makers of Tablet devices, under licence from Microsoft, include Acer, Compaq and Toshiba, and Casio is set to launch rugged version for use on sites. Building tested the £1850 Acer TravelMate 100 (pictured left) , and the technology is fairly simple to learn: an on-screen tutorial teaches you the basics in about two minutes, and then you're ready to start working.

Unlike previous devices, the Tablet software is pretty good at working out what you're trying to say. You have to write with a degree of care, but if someone else can read your scrawl, so can the Tablet laptop. You write in a special input area at the bottom of the screen and the software transfers it directly into applications such as Word.

There's also a QWERTY input panel on the screen, which you can use to tap out one character at a time, but this seems a painfully slow way of going about things. The Acer has a full-size keyboard hidden behind the swivel screen for die-hard typists.

Alternatively, you can save your work in handwritten form – a feature that's useful for rapid notetaking. This method also allows you to sketch and add freehand annotations, for example on top of typed Word documents or PowerPoint slides.

The pen replaces the mouse, allowing you to move a cursor around the screen, open applications and select from dropdown menus. You guide the cursor by waving the pen a few millimetres above the screen. Instead of clicking the mouse button, you tap the screen with the tip of the pen.

Is it any good? It's certainly easy to use and pretty stable, and it's fairly comfortable to use – you can scribble away while walking around the office, or balance it on your lap. This means Tablets could potentially be used in situations where there is still a reluctance to use laptops – for example in meetings, or on the bus.

There are a few quibbles. The screen is quite reflective, especially under strong overhead light, meaning the tablet has to be at the correct angle to your eye. This means it isn't quite as simple to use as real paper. For people with good typing skills, keyboards will probably still be a faster and more accurate input method. But for those who draw a lot, the ability to create documents containing sketches and text will be particularly useful. Likewise, people who spend a lot of time taking notes in meetings that then need to be laboriously typed up should find Tablet devices a godsend.

Tablet laptops that combine write-on screens and keyboards, such as the Acer version pictured, end up being just a little bit too heavy – more akin to carrying a mail-order catalogue than a notebook. Lightweight tablet-only versions that dock with a desk-bound keyboard will probably be preferable.

Whether this will prove to be the future of computing or an interesting niche product remains to be seen.

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The art of penmanship
Those who don't want to shell out a small fortune on a new Tablet PC should check out Seiko Instruments Inklink, which retails for £99.

A special ballpoint pen is used to write or draw on ordinary paper up to A4 size. A receiver unit clipped to the top edge of the paper uses ultrasonic sensors to detect the movements of the pen. This information is transferred onto a personal digital assistant (Pocket PC and Palm versions), or a laptop or desktop PC. PDA users attach a supplied infrared transceiver to the top of their PDA, and the data is transferred via its infrared port. PC users are supplied with a USB cable that they connect to their computer. PDA users can also download drawings from their handheld onto a PC. Inknote Manager software is included and enables drawings and notes to be organised, edited and saved as a variety of file formats, including jpeg files. Its main disadvantage is it does not convert handwriting into type like the Tablet PC, although this is balanced out by the fact that the whole thing fits into a neat pocket-sized case and weighs just 143 g.

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PDA with a rugged side
Symbol Technologies has produced a rugged PDA that it says bridges the gap between consumer PDAs and the company's more heavy-duty offerings. Called the PPT 8800, it is designed to suit an architect or building surveyor who is out on site occasionally. It is aimed at the corporate market and uses the Windows CE 4.1 operating system, allowing it to be networked with other PDAs. It also features wireless local area network connectivity (see box "The future is wireless", page 50) to link it to other devices nearby. Users requiring internet connectivity will need the optional Bluetooth card to link it to a mobile phone. The device has an ingress protection rating of 54 and the company says it will survive multiple drops onto concrete. It also features an integrated barcode scanner and a colour screen, and is powerful enough to instantly download and run a full motion video – handy for demonstrating a new process to site workers. The UK price is yet to be announced.

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Smartphone with Windows
Microsoft continues its quest for world domination of operating systems with the launch of its Windows-powered Smartphone software for mobile phones. Orange is the first network to launch a phone specifically designed to take advantage of Smartphone technology. The SPV – short for Sound Pictures Video – offers colour picture messaging using a detachable camera, SMS texting, and full web access with the ability to view video clips and send and receive email.

The operating system should be familiar to users of Microsoft Windows. It features Pocket Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player (for video and music playback) and Pocket Microsoft Outlook, which can be synchronised with a desktop PC running Windows. This means you don't need to enter details via a fiddly keypad. Third-party software developers are already developing games and business applications for the Smartphone platform. Other phone manufacturers will have Smartphone-compatible handsets on the market soon. It retails for £99 with an Orange contract.

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Site-proof camera
Casio has released the GV-20, a shock-, dust- and water-resistant digital camera. Aimed at the outdoor activities market, it would also feel at home on site. Based on the earlier, 1.3 megapixel resolution GV-10, the new model boasts a more useful 2 megapixels. It has a fixed focal length lens, and a range of pre-programmed settings where the camera then selects the best combination of aperture and shutter speed for the scene being shot. It retails for £300.

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Light and memorable laptop
Panasonic has launched the CF-R1 Toughbook Light, a semi-rugged laptop that the company says will withstand a drop from 30 cm without damage. It weighs just 990 g, is about the size of a sheet of A5 paper and will run for six hours on one charge. It features a 10.4 inch colour screen and has an 800 mHZ processor and 128 mb of RAM. It has a 20 GB hard disk and a slot for the new SD card, a solid state card the size of a postage stamp capable of storing 512 mb of data. The company says this means it can be used in aeroplanes, because it has no CD-ROM drive that could cause interference. It retails for a typical price of £1550.

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Discreet handheld computer
The most obvious thing about Palm's new Tungsten T handheld is that it's small and neat enough to discreetly slip into a shirt pocket. Its stylish metal case slides open to reveal a scratch pad where users can input text using Palm's Graffiti alphabet. The unit can remain closed most of the time, as users go through menus using the new five-way navigation button, and edit entries and scribble notes directly on the colour screen using the satisfyingly weighty stylus that pops out of the unit when you press it. It features Palm's new Version 5 operating system, and people who are nervous about compatibility with Microsoft Office documents can relax: it comes with a program that allows Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents to be downloaded from a PC, edited, then uploaded back to the PC. Bluetooth comes as standard, so emailers and surfers can connect to the outside world via a compatible mobile phone. It also has a slot for SD, SD10 and MultiMediaCard storage cards. The Tungsten T retails for £399. Next year, the all-in-one Tungsten W will be launched, integrating the PDA and a mobile phone.

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Software: Construction hits the 21st century

Site safety tool
Knowledge Online, a developer of safety software, has teamed up with the Construction Industry Training Board to produce an electronic health and safety tool. It is designed for health and safety management monitoring, and as an information resource. A central database containing all health and safety information about a company is held on a web-based server, and can be accessed remotely through a PC. Handheld devices loaded with the software are used on site to carry out safety audits based on 350 standard questions. Users can choose to carry out specific audits, such as scaffolding, or a daily site check. The device prompts the user with the relevant questions. Each question contains a series of links to the CITB’s GE700 construction site safety notes (also loaded onto the handheld) if the user needs best practice advice. The collected information is downloaded from the PDA to a PC, then uploaded to the web-based database. This can spot trends, so if a series of scaffolding incidents on sites operated by the company have been reported, the tool will immediately alert the site manager that there is a problem. The manager can then take additional action to minimise further risk. Finally, if a company changes its health and safety procedure, software changes made to the database will automatically be made to the site-based PCs and PDAs so that consistency of information can be maintained. Knowledge Online 307 On-site analysis
Primavera Systems has updated its P3 project management software tool to answer the specific needs of the construction industry. The product is called P3e/c for Construction, and has a number of enhancements to appeal to construction professionals. Its analytical capabilities have been improved to help minimise potential delays on site. A “risks, issues and alerts” feature automatically flags up potential problems and creates an “issues” list to help the project manager sort out difficulties. Site-based personnel can use a PDA to view the status of a project, and also carry out current status audits. The PDA communicates with the main program either via a database hosted on the web or through a PC to the database held on a company’s internal system. Other features include templates that allow a company carrying out a number of similar projects to use the template from an earlier, successful project. Existing P3 users can have a free upgrade to P3e/c for Construction. Primavera Systems 308 All-in-one accounting system
Construction software specialist Ramesys has launched an accounting and contract control package specifically for smaller contractors with turnover under £1m. Ramesys Construct comes as a box complete with its own operating system that the user simply plugs into their PC. The company says a contractor can have it up and running in minutes. If there are any faults, Ramesys will replace the whole unit within 24 hours. It tracks contracts, purchases, subcontractors and sales, and has a payroll and cashbook facility. It is also compatible with the company’s Xchange system, enabling goods to be ordered electronically over the internet. Ramesys 309

The future is wireless

Mobile phones, laptops and PDAs have become incredibly sophisticated, but linking them together is still the biggest barrier to truly mobile communications. IT consultant Anna McCrea explains the benefits of wireless communication Wireless technologies can offer a lot to the construction industry. The ability to access information in real-time has proven to be one of the biggest benefits behind wireless technologies, now a common way of connecting PC-based devices to networks or directly to each other. Construction sites are often in remote areas where communication can be extremely limited, but with the help of wireless technologies, sites gain access to the internet. Mobile communications can be located at various places within a construction site and can “talk” to each other as well as to a central, fixed location such as the site office, and the central office networks of each member of the project team.
  • Bluetooth is essentially a cable replacement technology for linking devices up to 10 m apart. It uses radio waves to transfer data between Bluetooth-enabled devices such as laptops, mobile phones, cameras, music players and personal digital assistants, and is expected to supersede infrared connections. Data transfer is slow – up to 1 megabit per second. To avoid interference and ensure security, the frequency “hops” in a sequence that only the connected devices “know” and recognise. Bluetooth is not a proprietary technology owned by one individual company, and is therefore supported by product and application developments in a wide range of market segments.
  • Wireless fidelity or “WiFi” is used to link devices up to few hundred metres apart and is one of the fastest growing markets in the technology sector. The appeal of WiFi lies in its ability to provide local area networks (LAN), wide area networks (WAN) and internet connectivity, as well as network bridging (wirelessly connecting site buildings) and even local office networking. Wired and wireless devices can communicate over the same network, with a wireless base station acting as a gateway. The advantage of WiFi lies in its availability: it is here now and is proving very popular. But its main drawback is poor security. It does come with a security tool call WEP – wired equivalent privacy – but recently this has been proven easy to bridge. When a company installs a WiFi network, it potentially creates a public entrance to its corporate computing environment. Until these issues are resolved, significant risks remain.
  • The third technology in this group is known as third generation or 3G, a common, global standard for mobile communications, that enables mobile phones or PDAs to use higher bandwidth data services. Earlier analogue and digital mobile systems (known as 1G and 2G) used a fixed amount of bandwidth for each user. 3G uses bandwidth much more efficiently, so that a user has the benefit of the entire potential capacity of a base station. This promises a speed of 2 megabits per second, although this may be reduced if lots of people are using a base station at once. Mobile broadband means users can watch video, listen to radio and use many kinds of interactive media while they are on the move. Train journeys need never be boring again. Unfortunately, 3G is not expected to take off before 2004-5.
  • Because of the costs involved in developing 3G, General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) has become a temporary substitute. It enables data exchange over a cellular phone link at 150 kilobits per second, which has allowed the introduction of colour, detailed images and more reliable connectivity, and is here now. With packet service, the mobile device is always connected, so for the first time users only pay for actual data transferred. The only downside is its lack of speed, but 3G will resolve this. So, the cable industry has some competition, and it’s growing fast …
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