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From the editor

Commentary by Pen Computing Magazine's editor-in-chief

By Conrad H. Blickenstorfer
March 2001, issue 38

I must admit that I almost popped a cork when Bill Gates presented Microsoft's latest invention to an astonished audience at last Fall's Comdex. A device so visionary, so full of innovation, so downright incredible that it boggled the mind. So what was Bill Gates' latest gift to mankind? What was that prototype of one of Microsoft's "coolest innovations?"

The Tablet PC.

Stop the presses. Microsoft has invented the Tablet PC. Microsoft has invented Pen Computing! What followed was a demonstration of that futuristic device in a little sketch where a man uses a pen tablet computer to help out a friend. The demo, ably conducted by Microsoft software architect Bert Keely, went on to highlight some of the incredible features of the device, things that you "can't really do with paper, but you'd love to if you were dreaming." Like annotating a document with handwritten notes, or actually manipulating that ink, and doing shape recognition. Heck, that thing was a veritable ink processor. Bill Gates then talked about the great interest in the prototypes of this new technology and how implementing these novel prototypes showed the PC industry at its best.

Excuse me, but Microsoft didn't invent tablet PCs. Microsoft didn't invent handwriting recognition. Microsoft didn't invent ink annotation or ink processing. And Microsoft most certainly didn't invent pen computing. In fact, one could make a very good argument that Microsoft did its best to thwart the development of pen computing when it first contributed mightily to the demise of Go Corporation which had developed a true pen centric operating system in PenPoint. Later, Microsoft disappointed pen enthusiasts by promising complete pen support in Windows 95 only to reneg on that promise. Microsoft further distinguished itself by neglecting Pen Services 2.0 to an extent where they became nearly useless. Microsoft officials openly admitted that all remaining pen efforts were concentrated on Windows CE, which, of course, is a bit of a mixed bag as well.

Now don't get me wrong. As co-founder and editor-in-chief of Pen Computing Magazine I am thrilled that Microsoft now views pen technology as a "radical step" and a "cool innovation." If Microsoft's next generation "Whistler" operating system is indeed pen-centric and Microsoft puts its marketing muscle and technical expertise behind it, then I couldn't be happier.

Still, Microsoft did not invent all of this stuff. Microsoft did not invent the Tablet PC or most of the technologies that were talked about at that keynote.

Regular readers of this magazine know that pen computing hardware goes back at least ten years, and the idea behind the concept almost 30 years. Ten years ago Momenta introduced its pen computer which, sadly, was a failure. Nonetheless, the consensus of many at the time was that pen computing rang in the fourth generation of the PC revolution--the first having been the Apple II era, the second the DOS-PC, and the third the Apple Macintosh. No, Windows wasn't mentioned anywhere. Microsoft was involved at the time, with Greg Slyngstad, general manager of the company's Pen Computing Group being quoted as saying, "The impact of pens on computing will be far greater than the mouse." Microsoft ran ads for Windows for Pen Computing in trade magazines, stating, "One of the most significant advances in computing is also the most basic. You already know how to use it." That referring to the pen as the primary interface with the computer. The Tablet PC a new invention and future tecnology? I don't think so.

Even a good deal of the great new ideas in the Tablet PC are old hat. The amazing ink processing demonstrated on the Tablet PC prototype goes back to aha! Inkwriter which Microsoft acquired in the mid-90s and which comes bundled with several versions of Windows CE. In fact, even back in 1994 you could buy InkWriter--a full-fledged ink processor--in a shrinkwrapped package from aha!.

Handwriting recognition also isn't exactly new. Microsoft's "MARS" recognizer that came with the initial Windows Pen Extensions was never a leader among perhaps a dozen handwriting recognition engines available in the mid 1990s. That honor went to CIC's Handwriter, ART's SmARTwriter, Lexicus' Longhand, and ParaGraph's CalliGrapher. These days, ART is laying low, Lexicus is a division of Motorola, and CIC is primarily engaged in electronic verification technologies. ParaGraph was first purchased by Silicon Graphics--a bad fit-- and then sold off to Vadem, the company that made the remarkable Clio CE device. Alas, Vadem also hit rocky times, despite a non-specified agreement with Microsoft. As a part of that agreement, Microsoft was able to include a basic version of CalliGrapher--which they call Transcriber--into the Pocket PC. Unfortunately, Transcriber didn't come with the Russian engineers that had conceived CalliGrapher in the first place. Their collective knowledge and experience is invaluable and I do hope it will be preserved.

Anyway, it appears even Microsoft realized that it had laid it on a bit thick with its claim of inventing the pen computer, and so an interview with Alexandra Loeb, the general manager of Redmond's Tablet PC effort, was quickly posted on Microsoft's website. Loeb's answers and elaborations were entirely more honest and realistic. She referred to earlier pen computing efforts, including Microsoft's own, and outlined the technological advances that will give the Tablet PC a better chance for success this time around. She pointed out that battery life, display resolution, memory, and handwriting recognition have all advanced greatly, and that Microsoft now has the benefit from experience gained in the past. Another crucial aspect is the inclusion of wireless communication for email, networking, and web access.

Finally, Loeb made a very interesting statement. She said that Microsoft is evaluating the Tablet PC from the customer's perspective: "It's not a computer science problem we're trying to solve--it's a customer problem." That, of course, is totally true. Earlier pen computing efforts met with mixed success only in part due to inadequate technology. The biggest problem was hype over handwriting recognition that created unrealistic expectations. People were told they'd have a tablet computer that they could simply scribble on and the computer would understand. That meta-phor didn't work until Palm inventor Jeff Hawkins redefined the rules of handwriting recognition. Graffiti, with its rigidly defined character set squarely puts the burden on the user instead of on the computer. Personally, I still prefer the more natural approach of CalliGrapher, but whatever will work on a Tablet PC is okay by me.

In addition to all the companies that have been building and selling pen and tablet PCs for the past ten years, I am sure that another group of people raised their eyebrows when they heard of Microsoft's invention of the Tablet PC, and that's the WebPad camp. National Semiconductor has been championing the WebPad for two or three years now. A number of WebPad designs were shown at Comdex 1999 and even more at Comdex 2000 last Fall. WebPads come in a variety of shapes and they are powered by a variety of processors and operating systems. All are spiritual successors of the original Zenith CruisePad, a wireless pen tablet that became orphaned and eventually died when Packard Bell bought Zenith DataSystems. And to some extent the future-oriented Ricoh 1200 pen tablet, the first tablet PC with a built-in CD-ROM drive and a good color screen. At this point, at least half a dozen companies are offering or demonstrating WebPads, among them National Semi, Accelent, SonicBlue, First International Computer, View-Tech, Honeywell, RSC, E-Labs, Qubit, and even 3Com. And let's not forget Aqcess Technologies and its former OEM, InnoLabs. All of these companies have spent a lot of time and money on their WebPad products, and it must have come as quite a surprise to them to find out that Microsoft in a pre-emptive strike of Al Gorian proportions, is now taking credit for inventing their technology.

Anyway, we'll be covering the Tablet PC and WebPad efforts in detail.

In this issue of Pen Computing Magazine you'll find an update on where e-books stand, a look at Apple's Mac OS X operating system as a mobile platform, a look at a couple of cool new pen computers, an assessment of the Linux-based Agenda VR3 PDA, and the usual detailed coverage of the major pen-based mobile platforms. We're also introducing the "Windows CE Speed parade" so you can always tell which CE device is really the fastest. - -

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer is editor-in-chief of Pen Computing Magazine and general editor of Digital Camera Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at

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