net.wars: Reinvention of pens past

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 08 November 2002

Do you know what green ink means? Can you use a pen? Do you think Microsoft just invented pen-based computing? And what are Big Ears? Wendy learns a few lessons from the past ...

Wendy M Grossman

Ah, the first time I saw a pen-based computer. I remember it well. It was 1993, and I was interviewing Hermann Hauser for Personal Computer World. Hauser was, of course, one of the founders of Acorn, and he had a lot of fun telling me probably completely apocryphal stories in which he was the hero, and it was I think one of the better Personal Computer World interviews - but I digress. The point is that at the time he was desperately, quiveringly excited about his new baby, the Active Book

You probably don't remember the Active Book, which went on to fail as the EO Personal Communicator in the US under the wing of AT&T, but it was an A4 sized tablet with a pen and two round ears sticking out and you wrote on the screen and it would do handwriting recognition and take what you wrote and stick it in a program just like real data. With communications. And no keyboard. It was going to take the world by storm. Hauser was in love with it. Even though it had big ears.

Well, I said, hefting it and writing a few sample characters which the machine failed to recognise, it's kind of heavy. Hauser didn't believe that was a problem. And having to print everything one letter at a time into tiny boxes in a line to aid the handwriting recognition didn't seem like much of a selling point? Not a problem, either. I guess he figured that the twin advantages of having a computer and a pen and communications all in one portable package ("can you put that thing in a shirt pocket?") would outweigh such trivialities.

By the next time I saw him, he was admitting that the idea was good but the implementation was too heavy and entering text too clunky.

But in 1993, almost no one other than journalists had or wanted portable computers. Executives still didn't type. So pen computing was going to take over all of computing. EO was competing with Go's Penpoint, Apple's Newton, IBM's OS/2 pen extensions and Thinkpads, the Compaq Concerto, and there was the GridPad, and Microsoft - yes! - had Pen Windows. Jerry Kaplan, head of Go, later wrote a book, Startup about those days.

Go crashed; EO crashed; OS/2 crashed; the Newton crashed; the Thinkpad became a laptop, and who remembers Pen Windows? Grid's founder went on to do the successful Palm - and although you have to write to its specifications for it to recognise your writing, at least it fits in your pocket.

So there I was yesterday, stuffed into a cinema seat watching people show off pen-based computers. Sure, it's kind of cool. Reminds me of the nice touch-screen PC with the revolving screen that Caspar Bowden showed me last year - he'd picked it up in Singapore or someplace. Of course, Caspar is Microsoft's EMEA security person now, but at the time he was still head of the Foundation for Information Policy Research and he was very into his Fujitsu-Siemens laptop.

And I don't know, time has gone on, and the hardware is more powerful, and I started thinking a pen would be kind of nice. I could touch little boxes to make checkmarks. I could cross things out. I could scribble dates and phone numbers to suck into the contact manager. Around the time I began imagining that I could handwrite the beginning of the Great American novel I trudged downstairs to the Toshiba exhibit. And what do you suppose my first question was on seeing up close the nice A4 tablet with its pen stuck in the slot and a box to scribble into and Windows XP all over it? It was: "Can you get a keyboard with that thing?"

You can, but that's not the point.

If the pen/tablet functionality costs little more than the cost of an ordinary laptop, people will buy it figuring they have nothing to lose. If the pen/tablet functionality costs extra, it will live or die on how well it recognises ordinary handwriting. The presentations yesterday had doctors talking about how valuable pen input would be to them. I understand about messy operating theatres, and gunk clogging up the keyboards, but could I repeat: doctors. If doctors are famous for one thing it's the illegibility of their handwriting. So I went up to this nice, new Toshiba tablet, and I wrote the way I write, which is more legible than a doctor but still has people puzzling over the word "program" for five minutes, "This is a test of the tablet PC."

Well, the demonstration wasn't rigged. It read that as ... well, I can't remember, but it wasn't English. This is not like speech recognition: you don't train the handwriting recognition, and it doesn't gradually learn your quirks. What you see today, the Toshiba guy said, is how good it's going to be. Oops.

People will forgive a computer that can't read their handwriting the first day. After a month, they'll be throwing it across the room. Give that doctor speech recognition.

Plus, there's the aesthetics. The tablet PC's "pen" is a skinny piece of plastic with no class. Where is the sensuous feel of the Parker gold nib gliding across the paper and the smell of the green ink? You hear that, Microsoft? What about the smell?

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).