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From the Editor (Aug 1998)

A bird's eye look at pen technology

This is the 23rd issue of Pen Computing Magazine, which means that even though we’re still a bi-monthly we have been covering pen computing technology longer than any other commercial magazine. Those readers who have been with us from the beginning know that it’s been an interesting ride. In late 1993 when this magazine was conceived, the very name Pen Computing Magazine was considered a huge negative and few gave us a chance to survive, let alone to establish ourselves as one of the more widely read periodicals in mobile technology (and one that a Microsoft notable recently proclaimed offers "the best coverage of Windows CE").

Among the very few who believed in us was wireless and mobile guru Andrew Seybold who has graciously contributed his Outlook column from the very start of this magazine. Though never a particular fan of pen technology and handwriting recognition, Andy told me in early 1994, "Had you started this magazine three years ago (when pens were all the rage), you would have failed. But now you actually have a chance." Fortunately for us, Andy, who has an uncanny knack for predicting what will work and what won’t, was right. As he was when he called me one morning in 1994 to tell me about Graffiti and how this was going to change everything ("Major breakthrough for PDAs," Pen Computing Magazine #2, Nov. 1994). Which, of course, it did.

In any case, unlike mainstream computing where, with the exception of the explosive entrance of the Web, the news is fairly predictable (bigger screens, faster processors, bigger disks, lower prices), pen technology is never dull and seems to reinvent itself every 18 months or so.

It’s both a has-been (many remember pen technology’s heydays in the early 1990s) and a future technology (Microsoft spends millions on it as part of its "natural interface" initiative. Whole categories of pen computers come onto the scene and then disappear again.

Today, for example, you can no longer buy a standard size notebook computer with a pen interface. But now we’re seeing a new generation of notebooks with large touchpads that accept both touch and pen input.

Or, whereas I had eight or ten different handwriting recognition engines on my old Compaq Concerto pen computer (which continues to see duty in my home office and when I go on very long flights where its sensational battery life easily makes it the computer of choice over any of my newer notebooks), today I’d have a hard time coming up with half that number. Yet, thanks to Graffiti, the Palm Pilot, and the whole connected organizer revolution they triggered, today there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, who use handwriting recognition (character recognition to be precise) to enter data into their tiny computers.

Whereas only four or five years ago the huge and hefty EO 880 was considered a PDA, today’s market criticizes any handheld that doesn’t fit into a shirt pocket. By that standard, even two of the original PDAs—the Apple Newton MessagePad and the Casio Z-7000 "Zoomer"—would be too large to be considered true palmtops.

And whereas the first pen computers had very little processing power, the latest ones sport RISC processors with nominally many times the power of the whole cluster of Prime superminis I was in charge of in the mid-1980s.

Easily the most stable sector in pen computing is the vertical market where durability, rugged design, and continuity are valued much more than the latest chipset-du-jour. Telxon Corporation still offers the same PTC-1180 I saw at one of my very first pen technology expos. The same can be said of machines in the lineup of fellow pen technology leaders Symbol, Intermec/Norand, and Microslate. Out there in the field, form follows function, and truly great designs—such as the Norand Pen*Key 63xx, the Symbol PPT4100, or Microslate’s impervious lunchbox computer—do not need to be changed from season to season. That is not to say, of course, that those models are not regularly updated with new and more appropriate technology under the hood by their respective makers (and supplemented by new and exciting models, such as the Telxon PTC-1124 reviewed in this issue).

Yet, even the vertical pen marketers are now facing some tough decisions. The primary question they must deal with is, in short, whether or not the emerging handheld and palmtop technologies are powerful and reliable enough to begin replacing the much larger and more expensive category of Windows 95 based mobile computers. Many field applications, after all, require little more than a few forms and the ability to reliably transfer the information back to a host computer. In such applications, the longer battery life and smaller form factor of a handheld may easily make up for the loss in processing power compared to a full function Windows 95 computer. And the lower cost may make deployment of computers financially feasible where it wasn’t before.

As a result of such considerations, most of the vertical market pen vendors have begun exploring handheld platforms.

Symbol Technologies licensed the Palm Pilot platform and is now selling the Palm III based SPR-1500 which combines the Palm’s functionality with Symbol’s tiny, yet powerful SE900 laser scanner.

Cruise Technologies chose the ELAN 400 chipset and a Windows CE kernel for its new CruisePAD NXT wireless thin client. With the ELAN/Windows CE combo efficiently going about their business of communicating with powerful Windows NT servers, most of the CruisePAD’s battery power can go to drive the kind of large, bright color screen customers have been asking for.

Telxon, meanwhile, leveraged (or perhaps hedged) its investment in the PTC-1124 by prepping the gorgeously styled handheld for triple duty under DOS/Windows 3.1 with a standard Intel 486 processor, under Windows CE with an ELAN SC400 chipset, and as a Java machine with a screaming 200MHz StrongARM chip.

Others are not willing to go on the record with their handheld plans just yet, but it’s safe to say that every player in the pen technology market is closely looking at suitable handheld operating system platforms, with Palm OS and the various versions of Windows CE being the front runners. Speaking of Palm OS, never make the mistake of underestimating its power just because it began life in a friendly, unassuming pocket organizer. At PC Expo, the huge Palm Computing section actually hosted a significantly larger number of third party partners than were present in the Windows CE area.

What we are seeing at this point with regard to handheld platforms is the kind of enthusiastic yet somewhat guarded interest usually awarded to technologies that just might be the next big thing. And with the demise of the Newton platform, there are now a large number of skilled (albeit burned) handheld platform developers eager to join a more reliable team.

Where does handwriting recognition fit into this whole puzzle? Over the last few years, several facts have been established. First, handwriting recognition works for some people but not for others. It will be a long time until recognizers can decipher everyone’s handwriting. Second, improved handwriting recognition is not just a matter of throwing more processing power at it. That certainly helps, but it’s only one part of solving a vexingly elusive problem. Third, voice recognition faces pretty much the same issues. Fourth, unistroke character recognition does work reliably and consistently in many applications.

But how mature are the handheld platforms at this point? The answer is, amazingly so. This is primarily because they are not weighed down by ten or 20 years of legacy limitations. On the other hand, today’s handheld platforms are not mature yet and will continue to evolve rapidly.

The same goes for the handheld and palmtop hardware. The Palm Pilot was an amazingly mature design right from the start, as evidenced by the fact that neither IBM nor Symbol found much to change or improve in their versions. CE-based palm-size technology is at the very beginning of its career and we’ll probably see a lot of change in that platform, especially in the areas of battery life and control placement. The ever larger CE handhelds have reached a level of polish that few thought possible even a year ago. However, they, too, remain a work in progress and suffer from some inexcusable glitches (for example, what good is voice recording when playback quality—with the exception of Compaq’s C-Series—is totally unacceptable? My toddler son’s five dollar toys sound at least twice as good as most HPC.

In any case, my point is that pen technology remains as vibrant and full of promise as ever. Stay tuned!

-Conrad H. Blickenstorfer is editor-in-chief of Pen Computing Magazine and general editor of Digital Camera Magazine. He is also a mobile technology contributor to the Fortune Magazine Technology Buyer's Guide.

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