Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

Pen Computing Magazine, Issue #5 June/July 1995

Three types of pen systems ­p; pen slates, PDAs and specialized vertical market pen systems have met with different degrees of success. Here's what happened.

Almost a year has passed since the first issue of Pen Computing Magazine, and it's certainly been an interesting year. As we look around, it's clear that the pen computing scene has shifted. The number of notebooks and laptops with pen options has not increased despite the fact that the pen is clearly superior to the mouse as a point and click device for mobile systems. A notable exception is IBM. The company keeps its pen offerings-the ThinkPad 730T pen slate and the ThinkPad 360 pen convertible notebook- updated and just announced a new version of the wonderful ThinkPad 360 with a faster processor and full audio support. Scriptel Holding, in the meantime, is trying to entice several major players to include its WriteTouch technology in mainstream notebook and laptop computers. WriteTouch combines a brighter, more responsive digitizer with a process that has the accuracy of an electrostatic pen but also accepts finger touch input.

On a less positive note, Microsoft decided to unbundle the pen services component from their upcoming Windows 95 operating environment. The move angered many pen software developers who had believed the software giant's emphatic public assurance that pen support would be built into Windows 95. As is, Microsoft intends to charge computer vendors extra for the pen services and also for the handwriting recognition component. Anyone who read Playboy Magazine's interview with Microsoft chairman Bill Gates some time ago may remember Gates' very positive comments about the Compaq Concerto pen notebook, so Microsoft's sudden turnabout may have originated with bean counters rather than with Gates himself. Oddly, within the span of a year, the pen seems to have gone from a much maligned technology to be left behind to one that holds great promise for the future. At a panel discussion on the future of mobile computers, representatives from all major PC vendors didn't even mention the pen when asked about their pointing device of choice. Yet, the first question from the audience, however, was "umh, what about the pen?" One rep after the other then described the pen as something they may build into future products. After the disappointing initial experience with pen PCs intended for the mass market, pens seem inexorably linked with handwriting recognition woes in the minds of computer manufacturers. That's too bad. Incidentally, Apple had fully working prototypes of pen-based Powerbooks not so long ago. They were scrapped. What a shame. Similarly, Palm Computing is holding back release of the Windows version of its terrific Graffiti character recognition engine because the company sees no market for it.

IBM, meanwhile, introduced another interesting attempt at mastering the mobile data entry problem: the ThinkPad 701 "Butterfly" is not as wide as a standard keyboard, yet when you open it, the keyboard extends to full-size. Early users are enthusiastic about the 701. An additional problem with pen slates and convertibles is that they find themselves once again at the trailing edge of technology. The second generation of pen systems that appeared on the market a year or two ago was fully up-to-date with 486/25 and 486/33 processors, local bus video, and reasonably sized hard disks. However, time isn't standing still, and today it's hard to get excited about a 486/25 pen system with a murky monochrome LCD when conventional subnotebooks have large, brilliant active matrix color screens and are starting to switch to Pentium processors.

While pen notebooks thus find themselves in sort of a timewarp limbo, personal digital assistants are slowly but steadily gathering momentum. If you've followed Nigel Ballard's list of PDAs which we have been publishing since our premier issue, you have seen it grow significantly, and several new PDA releases from the likes of Apple, Panasonic, Hyundai, and Hewlett Packard are just around the corner. For the past two years, PDAs have struggled to overcome the fallout from the tremendous hype with which they were introduced, facing expectations which no new technology could possibly meet. Now, however, many are starting to realize that while PDAs may not (yet) be the magic pocket-sized tablets that take your handwriting and somehow transform it into the solution to all of your life's problems, they can be very useful in many other ways. No one has yet found the type of "must have" functionality for PDAs that would instantly transform them into ubiquitous consumer devices such as video games or VCRs. But corporations and systems integrators, among them such heavyweights as KPMG Peat Marwick, are beginning to use PDAs as highly mobile intelligent terminals in increasingly more sophisticated client server systems. Companies like Wright Strategies and MacXPerts have released intelligent forms design packages that vastly simplify the development of truly useful professional PDA software. The advances in PDA wireless communications functionality for Apple's Newton platform over the past twelve months have been spectacular. All sorts of solutions are available, from cellular, to radio frequency packet, to wireless local area network, to paging­p;both as third party solutions or as integrated hardware packages, such as Motorola's Newton-based Marco communicator. The General Magic alliance has produced two very interesting communicators to-date, the Sony Magic Link and the Motorola Envoy, with others to be released soon. Software for the exceedingly user-friendly Magic Cap devices is just starting to reach the market, but anyone familiar with Magic Cap's companion TeleScript agent-based communications technology knows that we've just scratched the surface. AT&T has done a nice job in demonstrating some aspects of agent technology in its PersonaLink service (see interview with AT&T's Bill Fallon on page 32), and this is just the beginning. PDAs are starting to be described as the Fourth Wave of computing, one that will be driven by the parallel trends of continuing miniaturization and the desire for increasingly more comprehensive access to information, access that can no longer be confined to desktop PCs with modems, or even six pound laptops. It is quite clear that interaction with miniaturized, mobile technology will not occur through a full-size keyboard, or any keyboard at all. Initial forays into voice recognition technology have been most encouraging and it now seems certain that voice will play an important part in the way we will interface with technology. Expect fully functional voice activated prototypes in the very near future. At the handwriting recognition front, it's easy to see how Graffiti-style character recognition could be built into pagers or even watches, and Palm Computing is indeed exploring such opportunities. So far, pager companies seem reluctant to take advantage of this technology, which is surely a much more promising approach than those obnoxious and limiting canned responses we're seeing on pagers today. All in all, PDAs seem perfect for pens. While handwriting recognition remains a somewhat iffy subject, the pen interface itself has proven to be extremely valuable. Anyone who's still grimly pushing cursor keys on HP's otherwise superb 200LX palmtop or Psion's equally impressive Series 3a, can attest to that. Casio, of course, tries to offer the best of both worlds in its Zaurus: a keyboard-based PDA with a pen interface. It's ironic that companies that went out of their way not to build handwriting recognition into their PDAs due to the potential for bad publicity­p; such as Motorola with its Envoy communicator­p;now see customers install Graffiti onto their Envoys and Sony Magic Links in droves.

While the dream of Dynabook-like electronic pen slates has thus moved into a somewhat uncertain future, and PDAs are still in the process of gathering acceptance, a third category of pen systems has quietly grown into a flourishing and apparently very profitable business: mobile and ruggedized computers for vertical markets such as field force automation, healthcare, transportation, and other specialized industries. Companies such as Telxon, Norand, Symbol, Epson, and Inforite are building a variety of amazingly small, tough, and powerful pen computers, often with fully integrated wireless radios. Telxon's new PTC-1134 (PTC stands for portable tele-transaction computer) is a full-fledged 486 PC with a built-in spread spectrum radio, yet it's barely bigger than a PDA and only weighs a bit over two pounds (see review on page 46). At the PC Card '95 show in San Jose, S-MOS Systems, a Seiko-Epson affiliate, showed a full-function 486 computer­p;including memory, video, and all the ports­p;in a credit card-sized package. Nothing stands in the way of a PDA-sized 486 Windows PC, and it will most likely be a vertical market company who builds it. Telxon already makes a hands-free wireless computer (the PTC-925) that can be strapped to one's arm and looks like something out of Star Trek.

It is clear that mobile and field force computing will rely heavily on a merging of computer and communications technologies. What form this merger will take is not certain yet. However, considering the astounding success and consumer acceptance of cellular phones and pagers, it's quite possible that the ultimate mobile computer will look more like a pager than a notebook computer.

On the communications side, telecomm companies bid enormous sums in the recent federal government PCS auctions for the right to use a new part of the airwaves for future personal communication systems. Such systems are still several years away and experts are divided on the financial viability of PCS, but p message is clear: wireless communications is very much in our future.
In this issue we're presenting what may be the first complete listing of Magic Cap software, compiled by our amazingly thorough and industrious European Bureau Chief, Nigel Ballard. (Due to the rapidly increasing number of Magic Cap applications, it may also be the last.) We had planned on doing a detailed review of Symantec's ACT for Newton, but Symantec wasn't quite ready yet. Apple and Symantec are cooperating closely on this project. We saw an almost final demo, and are convinced that ACT will be a big hit, good enough to make people go out there and buy a Newton just to runACT (over 430 Symantec employees bought Newtons!). If you remember the EO personal communicator and wonder what actually brought on its demise, read our feature on page 72. Ken Maki, the man who, literally, wrote the book on EO tells you what happened. It is interesting (and somewhat disturbing) that all rights to EO's superb PenPoint operating system were recently bought by Taiwan's government funded Industrial Technology Research Institute. There may yet be other PenPoint machines, but­p;alas­p;they won't be built by a US company.