The writing’s on the PC for Allstream

Allstream Inc. has unveiled a digital pen and paper system that the firm claims can streamline data entry and document retrieval for Canadian companies.

Allstream, a telecom service provider, announced and demonstrated its new Digital Ink platform at the Canadian Telecom Summit Thursday. The system includes a digital ballpoint pen, PC and server software, as well as special paper. The platform essentially captures handwriting and stores documents in an electronic format.

John Macdonald, Allstream’s president, said it’s no stretch for his company, known for its network services, to offer Digital Ink. During a keynote speech at the Summit, Macdonald said telecom companies are moving towards offering applications that rely on advanced networking in a bid to impress businesses that have a wide range of service providers to choose from.

“The industry is going to have to move up the food chain,” Macdonald said, explaining that it’s not enough for a company like Allstream to provide connectivity alone. “I think the industry has to start speaking applications.”

During a Digital Ink demo, Rick da Silva, Allstream’s director, product management, pen and paper solutions, described how the system works. It relies on a high-tech pen (in this case a Logitech device, but Nokia will also provide a compatible writing instrument) that has old-fashioned ink and a tiny optical camera. The camera captures whatever the user writes on the special paper, which sports a predetermined template, looking perhaps like a credit card application or a survey form.

The paper template matches an XML document on the user’s PC. When the user puts the pen into its accompanying “ink well” — connected to the PC via USB — it sends the captured handwriting to the computer. The computer then displays on screen a virtual version of the paper-based document, with all of the user’s notes, signatures and such — a computer copy of the filled-out form.

The system translates the hand-written info into ASCII, excepting signatures, confirming with the user every time it comes across a character it’s not sure of. Da Silva said the system has particular trouble with zeros and ones, sometimes turning these numerals into “O’s” and “I’s.”

The system’s administrator can edit the data once it’s saved to the Digital Ink system, but that editing feature does not affect the PC-based version of the original document. That iteration can’t be changed, which means signatures would pass muster with the courts.

“It has the same legal standing as a signature that’s been faxed in,” said Krista Jones, Allstream’s vice-president, business development.

Da Silva said that in future versions, Digital Ink would include pen authentication software for users’ PCs, allowing the computer to verify that the writing implement is allowed to access the system. But for now businesses can turn on the password feature for security.

Jones said Digital Ink makes data entry less cumbersome for companies. Users can capture information in the field, simply record the info on paper and in the pen, and upload the data directly to the system’s storage units via the PC. The process cuts out the data entry department, where workers might make errors.

“Some companies will buy this for the scanning alone,” said da Silva, pointing out that businesses would be able to forgo the flatbed scanner and introduce data directly into storage.

Da Silva said Allstream has teamed up with a Toronto printing firm, Grenville, to help create the special paper that Digital Ink uses. The paper sports almost-invisible black dots that, when read by the pen, indicate what sort of document the user has, be it an application form or a contract. The pen transfers that info to the PC by its USB ink well.

Since the identifying dots are black, da Silva said, writing on the document must be some other colour. For the demo Allstream’s documents were blue and red. Da Silva said Grenville would charge the price of a two-colour print run for the special paper.

Da Silva also demonstrated a tablet PC version of Digital Ink that does away with paper. Instead of writing on dead-tree stock, the user would write on the tablet’s screen, and send the info wirelessly for storage. He said Allstream plans to offer a PDA version later this year.

A North Carolina-based company, Mi-Co, came up with the system. James Clary, Mi-Co’s president, said Allstream is the first Canadian provider to offer Digital Ink. He said Mi-Co does sell directly and through channel partners to enterprises in the U.S., but Allstream is the exclusive vendor in this country.

Clary said Mi-Co has been working on Digital Ink for five years. “It’s a matter of putting the technology to work,” he said, explaining why it’s important for his firm that Allstream decided to distribute the platform. “Allstream has the infrastructure to do that.”

Jones said Allstream would offer Digital Ink as a standalone solution for large companies, and as a hosted system for small and midsized firms.

Da Silva said Allstream has been demonstrating Digital Ink for companies lately, but none has signed on to purchase the system yet. He said the system starts at $7,000. That price includes five pens, five end-user licences, server software, and 500 copies of a single document.

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