Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

Pen Computing Magazine, Issue #7 November/December 1995

What was hoped to be a great boon to pen computing got off to a rocky start: Microsoft reneged on its promise to include the 2.0 pen extensions in standard Windows 95.

Welcome to our seventh issue of Pen Computing Magazine. It's been a fascinating journey so far, truly a road less traveled with all its hardships and thrills. We're more convinced than ever that alternative input methods will make it big in a computer and communications market that is rapidly becoming more mobile and demanding. In addition, field and sales force automation is in its infancy, and that market alone will be huge. Since it's hard to imagine field engineers, inspectors, rescue personnel, military forces and government workers clickedyclacking on keyboards while their doing their jobs in a trench, a boat, a construction site, it's safe to assume that pens and other non-keyboard interfaces will yet assume their rightful place as the ideal pointing, tapping, and editing tool.

One thing that continues to fascinate me is the tenacity and innovation with which handwriting recognition companies pursue their goals. After the decidedly mixed press that the field has gotten in the past few years, it would be all too easy for those maverick companies to cut their losses and pursue more immediately profitable (albeit less interesting) opportunities.

But that is not happening. Despite having lost staggering amounts of money over the past ten years, Communication Intelligence Corporation is hanging in there, grimly determined to reap the fruit of all their ingenuity and labor. Lexicus chief Ronjon Nag could have lived the good life after he sold his company to Motorola, but he and Lexicus are hard at work improving their impressive Longhand cursive recognizer and coming up with new products such as their QuickPrint character recognition engine and a most promising new technology for Chinese language recognition.

The Israeli go-getters at Advanced Recognition Technologies have peppered the market with rapid fire releases of version 2.0 of their smARTwriter recognizer, the ultra-compact smARTspeak voice recognition engine, and smARTwriter STAR which does for character recognition on Windows what Graffiti did for recognition on PDAs.

IBM's lesser known ThinkWrite recognizer also deserves a closer look, and first tests with Synaptics' HR 1200 show impressive speed and accuracy. Apple's new printed character recognizer, included in Newton Intelligence 2.0 and complementing the MessagePads' original Paragraph engine, also looks like a major step forward. Are we getting closer to solving the handwriting recognition riddle? Some still say that handwriting recognition, especially cursive, is an inherently unsolvable problem.

That may or may not be true. Personally, I've seen significant progress over the last year and a half, and increasing processor performance in pen systems and PDAs also helps. In addition, current approaches to recognition are much smarter than those in the past where recognizers usually took the one-size-fits-all approach. Today, most good recognizers have extensive editing tools and rely on multiple glossaries, mode switching, unistroke alphabets, and other tricks to eliminate ambiguity and narrow the recognition context.

Dr. Jean Ichbiah, inventor of the Ada computer language, has come up with an alternative on-screen keyboard which minimizes pen travel rather than copying the old QWERTY layout, which has no meaning on a computer screen other than perpetuating a bad habit. Ichbiah also promotes Instant Text, an abbreviation-based text entry method that expands logical abbreviation not only into words but entire sentences. It is ideally suited for pen operation.

The pen and PDA hardware industry, for one thing, is appreciative of all those efforts. Within the past few months, ART, CIC, and Synaptics have inked deals with Motorola, Symbol, and Norand.

Hewlett Packard, meanwhile, introduced its long awaited OmniGo 100 personal organizer, a little palmtop computer with a chiclet keyboard which can be flipped open so that the unit becomes a small electronic notepad. The OmniGo runs GeoWorks' GEOS operating system-sort of a mini Windows-and it has an absolutely terrific implementation of the Graffiti character recognizer. Gone is the traditional Graffiti data entry window. You write wherever you want. Recognition is dead-accurate and blindingly fast.

If one wants more proof that the news of the death of pen computing was greatly exaggerated, look at all those new units on the market: Motorola introduced the stylish but rugged Forté CommPad, Casio is probing the market with two new lines of small, ultralight vertical market PDAs (it seems that everyone is calling their pen/PDA hardware "vertical market units", just so that they can't be suspected of believing that there is a consumer market for pens...). We've already reported on the significant achievements of companies like Symbol Technologies, Norand, Telxon, Husky, and TelePad in pushing the technological and ergonomical envelope with their intelligently and innovatively conceived and executed designs.

The year's biggest opportunity (and biggest frustration) for the pen computer arena, of course, was the advent of Windows 95. Whether we like it or not, since the demise of the ever so promising PenPoint pen operating system, Windows for Pen Computing has become the standard platform for pens. Not PDAs, pens. Not to belittle Microsoft's efforts, but selling Windows for Pen Computing as a pen operating system was like trying to get a runner to take off his shoes and instead ride a car whose tires have a Nike logo on it: too big and just not what we had in mind. Windows 95, of course, is bigger yet, but version 2.0 of the Pen API looks very good indeed. There is a host of new functions that will enable programmers to create much slicker pen application than were possible with the old version. It will take some time to figure out how to use all those goodies in the new pen API, though, primarily due to the curious introduction of this new version of Windows for Pen Computing. Simply stated, it never took place.

Even though every computer running Windows 95 has significant parts of the pen API built in, and thus the inherent ability to display and manipulate electronic ink, Microsoft decided to separate the driver libraries from the main module and make them available only to pen hardware vendors. Since Windows 95 is a resource hog, none of them put high priority to making 2.0 pen extensions available for their machines which still primarily run on 25 and 33 Mhz 486 processors at best. As a result, the big Windows 95 D-Day back in August was a painful event for the pen community. The pen forums on the online services were swamped with requests for the drivers. I, too, optimistically loaded Windows 95 onto my trusted Compaq Concerto, with the predictable result of losing all pen support. I am sure this miserable situation will change, but for now it is simply infuriating. What seemed like a great boon for pen computing got off to a very rocky start.

Apple, on the other hand, continues to improve its Newton PDA platform slowly but steadily. It would have been easy to discontinue the Newton when it got shredded by the mainstream press in 1993, but instead Apple quickly introduced an improved Newton, the 110 in February of 1994, and then the 120 at the beginning of 1995. Now Apple introduced version 2.0 of the Newton Intelligence operating system and it is without a doubt the biggest single advancement in the history of Newton. Apple clearly listened to its customers and created a major upgrade that addresses just about every criticism ever levelled at the Newton. Even using the same hardware-the MessagePad 120 can be upgraded to 2.0-the new version makes the Newton much quicker, much more functional, much more useful. The new "Casual" system font is the best thing that ever happened in terms of readability short of backlighting. There is much to be excited about, especially with new and more powerful Newton hardware on the horizon.

I hope you'll enjoy this issue. We worked hard to bring you a wealth of news from the wonderful world of pens, PDAs, and mobile and wireless computing. Pay attention; these technologies are in your future (if you're not using them already), and they will change your life and your work.