Gates: Tablet will improve e-gov

Several technologies about to emerge from research laboratories promise to vastly improve the functionality of e-government, according to software savant Bill Gates.

Coming this fall, for example, is the tablet PC, as two companies — Acer Inc. and Compaq Computer Corp. — introduce new models.

If the tablet works as Gates envisions, this handheld computer could save forests of paper and eliminate many paper-based processes. Using handwriting-recognition software developed for more than a decade by Microsoft Corp., the tablet computer will make activities such as note-taking and reading long documents highly portable and comfortable, Gates said, and the material will be entirely digital.

The value of getting portable PCs into users' hands — as opposed to their desktops — will be significant, Gates told a gathering of international e-government officials attending a Microsoft conference in Seattle April 17.

Today's computers are confined mainly to desktops, Gates said. "As soon as you leave that desk and go to a meeting, mostly you're not taking the PC with you."

With the advent of tablet computers, "the value of the PC in those meetings will be quite dramatic," he said. Tablet users will be able to use wireless networks to retrieve data or take and search through notes, among other things — and they won't have to transcribe notes from paper to digital form.

The tablet also promises to revolutionize the reading of digital documents, Gates said.

Today, reading long documents on computers is uncomfortable because the reader is forced to stare at a fixed screen. But a tablet PC will be as movable — and ideally as comfortable — to read as a book or magazine. It might finally make Web-only publications feasible, he said.

Getting small, powerful computers into the hands of government workers, such as police, soldiers or environmental inspectors, will make a pretty big difference, said Jerry Mechling, a professor at Harvard University.

Delivering data to workers in the field via wireless networks should enable them to provide better services, he said.

Gates forecasts substantial information technology advancement in the coming "digital decade." Despite the current downturn in the IT industry, the research and development being done today "is far more focused on the real problems than it has been for many years," he said.

But similar predictions have not always panned out. For example, Gates was asked, whatever happened to the paperless office?

"I'm a diehard," he said. "I still believe that can be achieved.... Yet when you go to offices today, you don't see that at all."

Much of the paper used today could be eliminated if forms were converted to digital formats, he said. "I'm a very strong believer that forms-type information should always be entered at the first point of availability digitally. There is every benefit to doing it that way. That's common sense."

Eliminating long paper documents will be harder. Until there is an alternative to the desktop PC screen, most people will not read documents more than four or five pages long on a computer, he said.

"I'm dying to use the tablet PC," Gates said. "There you get the best of both worlds." In addition to making long documents easier to read in digital formats, the tablet lets users attach notes, search and perform other PC functions, he said.

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