10 Years of Pen Computing Magazine

1994 - 2004: A look back at our first ten years
(June 2004 issue)

They say you should buy low and sell high. Here at Pen Computing Magazine we only partially followed that advice. We started the magazine when pen computing was at its lowest and everyone shook their heads that a small startup publishing company should have the audacity (or stupidity, rather) to do something like that in a field that was considered dead. So we bought low. Unfortunately, we didn't sell high, in those lofty days before the dotcom crash and 9/11, when print advertising was plentiful and Pen Computing reached an all-time high of 140 pages densely packed with information, and the magazine was considered a hot property.

Let's take a journey back in time to when we got started back in the fall of 1993, and then see how things developed in pen computing over the past decade.

As stated, the timing of our start couldn't have been worse. The whole field of pen computing was basically discredited and most major players had already departed. Had we gotten in back in 1989, we would have witnessed the rise and fall of Momenta, the first company to come out with a pen slate. There was plenty of hype about the Momenta, founded by Kamran Elahian. The Momenta was really an advanced design, but there was only so much it could do with a 386/20 processor and the hardware and software of the era. They burned through $40 million in venture capital and closed down in 1992. Why did it happen?

The pen computing hype had reached a fever pitch in 1991 when there was serious discussion of the pen as the next interface and pens replacing keyboards. Almost all major players were frantically trying to get a piece of the action. No one wanted to be left behind, beaten by pen computing pioneers like GO Corporation which had created an entirely new and totally pen-centric operating system, or EO, a GO offshoot that was building hardware for Go's PenPoint operating system, or GRiD where many of mobile computing's brightest minds got their start. Some of the earliest hardware was running Pen DOS, a version of DOS that accepted pen input without actually being a GUI.

Microsoft was literally quaking in its corporate boots, frantically trying to get a piece of the action. A Pen Computing Group was formed in Redmond, with its general manager, Greg Slyngstad, enthusiastically proclaiming, "The impact of the pens on computing will be far greater than the mouse.... Imagine "smart paper" that can do everything paper can as well as recognize objects, do calculations, neatly organize, duplicate and transmit itself."

In 1992 things came to a head. GO released PenPoint in the spring of 1992. It was a brilliant piece of software, totally pen-centric, but had a rather steep learning curve. Lexicus released Longhand, a novel handwriting recognition system that, as its name implied, claimed to handle cursive handwriting. Microsoft released Windows for Pen Computing, really nothing more than a layer sitting on top of Windows, but one that could run all existing Windows applications. Momenta, contributing to its impending doom, decided to go it alone and created its own interface.

Hardware quickly followed, and not all of it came from pioneering pen computing startups. There was a whole wave of pen tablets, and they all pretty much shared the same set of specs: the standard clipboard format, a 386 or 486 processor, 4-8 megabyte of RAM, PC Card slots, an active Wacom or Kurta/Mutoh digitizer, a 6 to 8 inch monochrome display, and a weight of 3 to 4.5 pounds. If those specs, apart from a good decade of additional technological advances, look eerily familiar it is because they are. A contemporary pen tablet from Fujitsu or Motion Computing still uses the clipboard format, still has a Wacom digitizer, and weighs about the same.

Some of those products were quite interesting. EO had designed two clipboard style communicators meant to be used with the PenPoint OS. There were two models, the smaller 440 which was almost like a large PDA, and the larger EO 880 which came with a cellphone option. In those days that meant a full-size handset was sitting on top of the device, making it large and heavy. Even though EO had been bought out by a then still powerful AT&T, the communicators weren't going anywhere and after a flurry of sometimes funny and sometimes pathetic TV ads, AT&T pulled the plug. GO and EO lost a combined $70 million of venture capital money.

NCR was still a big player in the computer field back then, and they were one of the first to launch a pen tablet that could run either Windows for Pen Computing or PenPoint. The handsome white NCR NotePad 3125 weighed just four pounds, claimed a battery life of four hours and even had a backlight, not a given in those days. Samsung introduced the formidable and elegantly designed PenMaster that still looks modern today. It had a beautifully edged display that is still better than anything on the market today. The device, in a slightly different body, was also sold as the GRiDPad SL.

Even smaller than those two was the Dauphin DTR-1, an ultra-compact "Desk Top Replacement" sold in computer chains. The DTR-1 weighed just 2.5 pounds and was meant to allow computing anywhere, anyplace. It would be followed by the much more powerful DTR-2 that added excellent voice recognition and all sorts of cool add-ons.

Fujitsu, too, got into the pen computing business early. The 325Point, introduced in 1993, was the predecessor of the famous Stylistic models. With an anemic 25 megahertz 386 processor it was underpowered even for its day, but it also only weighed three pounds, could run both Pen Windows and PenPoint, and cost just $1,695. And it looked terrific.

TelePAD got into the business with the TelePAD SL in 1993. TelePAD was one of the first companies to realize the vertical market potential of the pen slates and sold the SL as a field force computing solution. It later morphed into the futuristic TelePad 3.

The big guys were in the game as well. Compaq introduced the Concerto, a brilliant convertible design with a snap-on keyboard that really worked. The Concerto was technologically up-to-date, had terrific battery life and was truly ahead of its time. So much so that when the Tablet PC came around a good many years later, Compaq's offering showed a very clear lineage back to the original Concerto. Unfortunately, Compaq misjudged the market and tried to sell the Concerto as a top-of-the-line model for an ungodly price. By the time the price was slashed it was too late.

Toshiba entered the market with the "DynaPad," a name meant to evoke the luster of Alan Kay's original 1968 dream of a "Dynabook" which Kay said would be a "dynamic medium for creative thought, capable of synthesizing all media--pictures, animation, sound and text--through the intimacy and responsiveness of the personal computer." And that was in 1968! Toshiba's DynaPads, the T100 and later the T200, were competent, albeit unexciting, pen slates with exceptional battery life.

IBM, likewise, had very high hopes for the pen computing market. The original ThinkPad was, as the name implies, a pad, a pen slate. The original IBM ThinkPad 700 was an enormously attractive 3.5 pound pen slate with a paperlike display and all the technology of the day. IBM improved on it with the 710 and 730 models, but by that time their magnificent designs were trying to address a market that had measured pen computing and found it lacking. It's a little-known fact that IBM also offered notebook-style ThinkPads with a pen interface. Both the 750 and the less costly 360 line had ingenious convertible displays that worked much better than the swivel designs of today's Tablet PC convertibles.

And let's not forget GRiD where fountainhead Jeff Hawkins pioneered a whole slew of pen computers, from the GRiDPad to the GRiD Convertible and other groundbreaking designs.

However, unlike the Apollo program that managed to send a man to the moon with what looks like unbelievably primitive 1960's style technology, that first generation of pen tablets simply could not hack it. The processors were too slow, the disks too small, the batteries too weak, and the screens too dim and small. So by 1994, the first wave of pen computing was over. Momenta had closed its doors. Samsung had given up after the PenMaster. NCR dropped out. GRiD was sold to AST and liquidated. Dauphin went bankrupt. AT&T closed down EO. Slate, a pioneering pen computing software company, closed down in February 1994. Compaq, IBM, and NEC all stopped their pen projects.

That was the time Pen Computing Magazine was born into. In the Fall of 1993 I was an increasingly frustrated CIO of a construction and finance company in New York, stifled by layers and layers of corporate bureaucracy and tortured by a hostile, incompatible boss, and I couldn't wait to get out. So when an acquaintance, Howard Borgen, approached me with the idea of a magazine dedicated to pen computing, I was all ears. A couple of months earlier I had bought one of the first Apple Newton MessagePads and was thrilled with it. So I attended a pen computing trade show in Boston in the fall of 1993 and picked up whatever information I could from a still quite respectable roster of vendors. During a break I sketched out the design and contents of Pen Computing Magazine while my future business partner Howard Borgen walked the aisles, showing off the attractive mock-up cover we had created.

I quit the corporate world in September of 1993 to dedicate myself full-time to Pen Computing Magazine. Howard Borgen and I signed an agreement where I would be responsible for all editorial and content matters, and he for distribution, marketing and advertising. Our total startup capital was a ridiculous $2,000. I studied the competition, which consisted of Pen World, a magazine that had been around since the early days of pen computing. I decided we'd be more businesslike and more product-oriented. For the next few months I attended every mobile computing trade show I could, contacted writers and contributors, picked up a Concerto on sale and generally acquainted myself with the industry. I had become a huge fan of the Newton MessagePad whose much maligned handwriting recognition worked just fine for me. I met with some of the captains of the by now dying pen computing industry which was quickly replaced by a burgeoning PDA industry.

By early 1994 I had finished the first issue of Pen Computing Magazine, a glossy 100-page book, perfect bound and, as far as I was concerned, absolutely terrific. Problem was that no one wanted to advertise. We tried everything, from cornering potential advertisers at trade shows, to making cold calls, to begging and pleading with product managers, and even to spending $6,000 on a marketing consultant. Due to Howard's family connections in the magazine field we had landed a decent distribution contract with Kable, but now we needed the money to print. And neither of us had any. I had just bought a new home, and Howard and his wife Lisa had just started a family. For several months we had a complete magazine, but not the measly $20,000 the printer wanted upfront. Eventually we clawed together $17,209 in ad revenue and borrowed enough money from friends and relatives to print the premiere issue of Pen Computing Magazine. I remember holding the first issue in my hands, feeling for the first time the pride and sense of accomplishment that comes with seeing the glossy finished result of all your work. I remember being at a trade show in Chicago's colossal McCormack Place, manning our very first booth at a trade show, just a few feet away from our Pen World competitors. Turns out our first issue would coincide with their last.

At one of those early shows mobile and wireless industry analyst and expert Andrew Seybold told me that a couple of years earlier he would have thought it foolish to start a magazine on pen computing, but now he felt we might be on to something. And that from a man who did not believe in pens or handwriting recognition in the least. At least not yet.

Things actually looked pretty good in that first year. Although the consumer market pen computing industry was dying, the emerging PDA kept things interesting and exciting. In the early days of the Newton, Apple had a new model seemingly every few months. Sharp made its own version of the Newton, the Sharp ExpertPad. Tandy and Casio sold their own GEOS-based PDA that was designed by none other than Jeff Hawkins. The Eden Group of the UK had beaten everyone to market with their Amstrad PenPad, a neat little book-style PDA powered by no less than three ancient Zilog Z80 CPUs. In the spring of 1994, Motorola and Magic Cap held a terrific launch event for the Envoy in the San Jose Convention Center. It was there that I met, for the first time, one of our early columnists, UK-based Nigel, Ballard, author of "Nigel's Pen Journal." The Envoy was a device that was way, way ahead of its time. Using an almost too friendly graphical user interface designed by former superstars of Apple's vaunted Macintosh team, the Envoy added Packet Radio-based wireless communication to PDA functionality in a form factor different from anything seen before. For Apple aficionados, Motorola quickly doubled up with the Marco, a Newton with a wireless radio. My local newspaper, the Albany Times Union, had done a large feature on Pen Computing Magazine, interviewing me in our editorial offices, which at the time consisted of a spare bedroom in my home.

What followed was really strange. To say that the pen computing industry was struggling was a vast understatement. "Dying," "reviled," "ridiculed" would more aptly describe it. In 1994 and 1995 we used to go to major trade shows and, after combing the shows floors, find perhaps half a dozen pen-related items. Sometimes it was very hard to find anything worthwhile, but we were so high on the magazine and so convinced of the eventual success of pen computing and the PDA that we simply willed each new issue of the magazine to be full of interesting stuff. Some of the remaining players were grateful for our attention while others were too beaten and downtrodden to even care. Looking back, we also benefited from the pen computing industry's move into vertical markets. From the start we had not only covered PDAs, handwriting recognition and wireless communications, but also vertical market hardware and how it was used in actual field situations. We reviewed rugged and pen-based handhelds and terminals from the likes of Symbol Technologies, Husky, Norand, Telxon, Texas Microsystems, Melard, Teklogix, and many others.

So while the pen computing industry was down in the dumps, Pen Computing actually prospered. Howard and Lisa had hired some good ad reps, and by our third issue we reached over $60,000 in ad revenue, and then broke the $100,000 mark in early 1996. In the meantime I had moved to California and lucked into finding David MacNeill who at the time taught computer classes and wrote a Newton column for On the Go, a California freebie computer magazine. David eventually became Pen's Executive Editor and when we started Digital Camera Magazine in 1998, I named him Editor-in-Chief of that publication. Really great people only come along once in a great while, and David was, and is, such a person.

Anyway, at that time in the mid-90s, the big debate in PDAs and pen computing was still over handwriting recognition. At one point there were about a dozen handwriting recognition companies duking it out in the marketplace. I had (and still have) no less than eight different recognizers on my Compaq Concerto, and I was a tireless supporter of the technology. Handwriting recognition worked for me. I took my Newton everywhere and used it to take notes. Not just a few words, but transcriptions of whole seminars and sessions. I'd take notes during the day, then compile everything at night in my hotel room and sync it to my notebook, and then edit my work. By the time I was back in the office I had complete conference and product reports.

However, not everyone shared my enthusiasm over recognition. Sharp, for example, had developed the terrific line of Zaurus PDAs, but opted to keep them in its Japanese home market. US customers were given the Zaurus K-PDA, for "Keyboard-PDA." The US Zaurus had its supporters, and we gave it its own section and column in Pen Computing Magazine for a few years, but it was really nothing more than a glorified organizer.

Where was Microsoft during those early years in Pen Computing Magazine's history? Really nowhere. After PenPoint had been defeated Microsoft had quickly lost interest in the pen market. While there is every indication that Bill Gates himself always had, and still has, a fascination with pen-based systems, the company itself was far too focused on Windows--which was, is, and always will be a mouse-centric operating system--to care about anything else. When Windows 95 made its entrance in 1995, Microsoft made a very half-hearted effort to release Pen Windows 2.0, which had been downgraded from Windows for Pen Computing to simply "Pen Services 2.0." Microsoft Press published a massive volume on the new Pen Services and it was clear that some people within Microsoft had tried very hard to come up with something worthwhile, but the project never went anywhere. Eventually third parties, like pen computing pioneer CIC, provided their own drivers and pen extensions.

Microsoft also waffled in the PDA department. Its "WinPad" PDA platform had been rumored for years but had been delayed so many times that early Pen columnists routinely mocked Big M, as in a priceless spoof column entitled "SwimPad" by one of my wonderful mentors, Ronald J. Wooldridge. However, Apple's increasingly polished Newton and the emerging Palm Pilot finally rocked Microsoft to attention.

So just half a year after Palm Computing's Ed Colligan had invited us down to A&R Partner's offices to show us the prototype of the Palm Pilot, Microsoft introduced, to much fanfare, Windows CE at the eve of the 1996 Comdex in Las Vegas. It was a grand event at Cirque du Soleil, with Gates himself making the introduction and wooing (sort of) the masses. Hewlett Packard, NEC, Philips, LG Electronics, and Casio had hardware and Pen Computing's cover proclaimed "Microsoft Declares War!" Yes, at that point everyone still thought it was going to be redux of the Microsoft versus Apple wars of a decade earlier, only this time it would be a lineup of Handheld PCs powered by Windows CE versus Apple's eMate and magnificent MessagePad 2000. Palm yet had to convince the world that a device without expansion, without communication, and without a keyboard could possibly stand a chance. At Pen Computing, of course, we knew. The headline of our April 1996 issue was: "There's a Pilot in your Future!"

What followed were the glory years of Pen Computing Magazine. By diligently covering a wide variety of mobile products ranging from consumer market PDAs all the way to rugged notebooks and industrial terminals, we had found a niche that resonated with a wide variety of readers. In 1998 we issued the first, and extremely well received, annual Pen Computing Buyer's Guide. I was invited to Japan by Sharp as part of press tour for an international circle of technology journalists. It was an unforgettable ten days, culminating in personal meetings with Sharp's president, several factory tours, and visits to historic Kyoto and Tokyo's famed electronics bazaar, the Akihabara. 1997 through 2000 were years of prosperity for Pen Computing Magazine as we covered an increasingly successful vertical pen market, driven by pioneers like Fujitsu Personal Systems (which later merged with another Fujitsu division into the current Fujitsu PC Corporation), Itronix, Symbol, Intermec, and others.

In the marketplace, cellphones were still just big, dumb bricks and the PDA reigned supreme. Although Microsoft's Handheld PCs struggled due to a combination of dumbed-down software and marginal hardware, that, and some truly miserable management in the mid 1990s, was still enough to keep Apple in the ropes. Steve Jobs came back to rescue Apple. Sadly, one of his first actions was to kill the Newton. We still hold that against him. With the Newton gone, Microsoft could focus its full attention to the stunningly successful Palm which had grown into a full-fledged "Palm Economy."

When Pen Computing was founded, Palm was just a small software shop run by Jeff Hawkins. Then Hawkins invented Graffiti (which caused Andy Seybold to change his tune about handwriting recognition and the future of PDAs) and Palm got into hardware. Not confident it could go the hardware route alone, Palm sold itself to US Robotics, which was promptly snatched up by 3COM. Unhappy with the corporate culture there, Jeff Hawkins and Donna Dubinsky left to form Handspring, an initially mysterious company that would not divulge what it was working on. Ed Colligan eventually followed Jeff and Donna and we received another call from Ed, this time to show us the initial Handspring Visor with its patented Springboard slot.

When Microsoft had launched Windows CE in 1996, almost everyone had thought the game was over and Microsoft would win. Not so. Microsoft struggled because the company a) never paid too much attention to its mobile efforts, and b) seemed almost comically concerned about Microsoft-powered handhelds cutting into the low-end notebook market. This became especially critical when Microsoft, having failed with the little clamshells, decided to launch the "Jupiter" class of larger and more powerful handhelds. We called them "notebook killers" on a cover and I'll never forget the look on Microsoft's pony-tailed Phil Holden's face when he saw that.

Microsoft probably also didn't expect the PDA-style Palm Pilot to become as successful as it did, and so, in January of 1998, introduced its own PDA, a rather blatant copy of the Palm which it shamelessly called the "Palm PC." Everex, Palmax, Casio, Compaq, and Philips showed hardware at the 1998 CES, and we all wondered if Palm's days were numbered. They weren't. Palm continued to dominate--no, pound--Microsoft, and that didn't even change as the now renamed Palm-Size PC gained color displays and multimedia capabilities. OEMs left the good mobile ship Microsoft in droves, with the prize for the most spectacular disappearing act going to Philips who had garnered good reviews for its Velo Handheld PC and Nino Palm-Size unit, yet then bailed, leaving untold thousands stranded.

Things didn't change until 2000 when Microsoft unveiled the Pocket PC. Maybe it was the name, maybe it was the cleaned-up interface and software, and maybe it was the introduction of the first truly competitive piece of Microsoft powered mobile hardware, the Compaq iPAQ, but finally Microsoft was on the map. Pen Computing was, too. After years of trying to get as much as a single ad page out of Microsoft, Redmond threw us a bone in the form of commissioning a dedicated Pocket PC insert into two issues of Pen. I think we did a nice job and our advertisers and readers got a treat.

Later in 2000 we were approached by a Taiwanese publishing company who ended up licensing the Pen Computing name and content. This led to my second trip into the Far East. In December of 2001 I gave a keynote address on the past and future of pen computing in the Taipei International Convention Center. It was another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Just when we thought the dotcom and technology boom would never end, things came to a crashing halt. First the greedy dotcoms self-destructed, then came the devastating attack of September 11, 2001, perhaps altering America forever. It was a huge blow for all of us, in many respects. All of a sudden things sputtered and came to a halt, and nothing seemed the same. A level of staffing that had seemed lean during the boom years became a burden. Advertising reps that had grown accustomed to large draws and fat commissions became disgruntled over the slimmer pickings and left.

And all that came just as Microsoft introduced perhaps its most exciting platform in many years, the Tablet PC. Bill Gates' 2001 Comdex keynote was dominated by the Tablet PC. Tablet PC demos and prototypes were all over the Comdex show floor, and that for a platform that hadn't even been formally announced and released.

It wasn't hard to see what everyone was so excited about. With PC and PDA production sputtering and plateauing, Microsoft's Tablet PC was a most welcome effort to not only widen the appeal of the personal computer, but also rejuvenate the entire market. Everyone would benefit. On the vertical and industrial side, pioneering vendors had successfully created a sizeable market for pen-based notebooks, slates, and handhelds, and the Tablet PC would bring better software from Microsoft and more hardware from many world-class vendors. On the business and consumer side, adding ink as a new data type was an exciting addition to the relatively stagnant notebook market.

It didn't all turn out to be exactly as expected. During the initial phase of the Tablet PC project, it seemed like the hardware was going to be primarily slates. At some point that changed and Microsoft began concentrating on "notebook convertibles," standard notebooks that could be converted into pen slates by rotating and folding the display. Perhaps Microsoft or the OEMs, or both, got cold feet and felt that slates would not have enough mass appeal to float the platform. As it turned out, the Tablet PC, so far, has been a mixed blessing. While the software was good enough, and Microsoft successfully avoided falling into the handwriting recognition trap by concentrating on ink, the whole Tablet PC concept wasn't compelling enough for the general public to bite. In addition to the relative lack of must-have incentives, Tablet PCs were, and are, relatively expensive, generally commanding premium prices for relatively low-powered hardware. Some argue the prices are justified because almost all Tablet PCs are "ultra-lights" that always command a premium price, but the buying public doesn't see it that way.

Things are a lot better on the vertical market front where the Tablet PC brought both better software and better and cheaper hardware. Interestingly, in that category slates continue to dominate. The new products from Fujitsu, HP, Motion Computing and others are excellent.

PDAs are definitely under siege. It's almost as if they did not want to succeed. Handspring's meek exit was as disappointing as Sony's decision to yank its Clie handhelds from the US market, leaving Palm in a precarious position. For a long time no one thought Microsoft could catch Palm. No one except Taiwanese Digitimes, that is. Back in 2001, they predicted a virtual dead heat by 2004, and they were right. And that's not all that ails PDAs. All of a sudden, everyone thinks what everyone needs is a cellphone with PDA stuff grafted onto it. I don't buy that. I want a real PDA, something like a 2004 version of the original Newton. Something with a big display and an OS designed to interact with me instead of with the phone company.

So it's been ten years. Who'd have thought that we'd still be here? Starting a magazine covering an unloved field that was down in the dumps, and we did it with just $2,000. I am told many publishers spend millions to launch and develop a title, and they still fail. So we probably did a few things right. Doing magazines is not without frustrations. While I am primarily an editor, I was also a partner for many years and thus had to keep an eye on the finances. From that vantage point it was often very disappointing to see the likes of Microsoft and Palm and many other large technology companies spend tons of ad money everywhere but with us. The line was always that we already covered their products and that our readers already knew about them. Guess what? Our readers may already know, but they sure don't like to be taken for granted. Our readers are the early adopters who talk about products, recommend them, and spread the word on the internet. And a very tiny fraction of the ad dollars some of the big companies spend on truly dubious ads in dubious places would help the trade press survive. We're a community, and it's not nice for Microsoft to sit on billions while the tech press that covers their products barely gets by.

Still, even if Pen Computing Magazine is no longer a very lucrative business proposition, it is still what I love to do. We love this industry, we love the products, and we love to make magazines. And we love everyone who's been with us through those ten long years. Thank you, and I do hope we'll be here in another ten. - Conrad H. Blickenstorfer