Direct quote from a Microsoft executive: "The impact of pens on computing will be far greater than the mouse. The two key benefits--extreme portability and ease of use--will enable tiny, low-cost PCs that will appeal to a broader spectrum of users than ever before. Imagine "Smart paper" that can do everything paper can as well as recognize objects, do calculations, neatly organize, duplicate and transmit itself."
The quote is by Greg Slyngstad and was published in the first and only issue of PenTop Magazine in November of 1991, eleven years ago. Slyngstad was the general manager of Microsoft's Pen Computing Group. The man clearly was a visionary. I mean, how likely is it that any of our predictions of what will happen in the year 2013 will remain as up-to-date and relevant as Slyngstad's 1991 commentary on the impact of the pen on computing?
While it remains to be seen whether the eventual impact of pens on computing will indeed become far greater than that of the mouse, Microsoft's grand unveiling of the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition on November 7, 2002, shows that pen computing is significantly more than the fad it was dismissed as back in the early 1990s.
True, things didn't go quite as planned. The compelling paradigm of using a pen instead of a mouse or a keyboard to communicate with a computer turned out to be far more complex to implement than any of the early pen computing pioneers imagined. Technology, for the most part, just wasn't ready. The small LCD displays of the day were barely legible under the best conditions and certainly no match for a crisp, white pad of paper. Processors were deadly slow, disk capacity was inadequate to say the least, batteries didn't last long and the contraptions were much too big and heavy. In addition, there was too much emphasis on handwriting recognition, a technology that remains problematic to this day.
So what has changed between the first commercial introduction of pen computing over ten years ago, and the grand unveiling of the Tablet PC on November 7, 2002? What's the difference between, for example, a 1992 Samsung PenMaster and a 2002 Fujitsu Stylistic ST4000 pen slate?
Both have roughly the same footprint (the 8-1/2 x 11 notepad format doesn't go out of style), but the Stylistic weighs less and is only half as thick. In terms of technology specs, there is simply no comparison. The Stylistic's mobile Pentium III processor is infinitely more complex and runs at 40 times the clock speed of that old 80386. The difference is even bigger in disk drive capacity: the Stylistic's speedy 40GB disk has 500 times the capacity of the PenMaster's 80MB drive. The new machine also has over 30 times more RAM memory and its USB and Firewire ports can communicate at vastly greater speed than the old serial and parallel ports. Most dramatic perhaps is the difference in displays. Though of roughly the same size, the old is monochrome and essentially illegible, the new is just about perfect with incredible contrast and millions of colors. Much of the ST4000's extra power, of course, is soaked up by the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition which is infinitely more complex and resource-intensive than good old Windows for Pen Computing, an overlay on top of Windows 3.1. What hasn't changed much, interestingly, is the digitizer itself. It's still made by Wacom, the pen is about the same, and the old PenMaster actually had an edged surface that felt somewhat more paperlike than that of any of the new Tablet PCs. All in all, the new hardware is dramatically more powerful and pleasant to use.
What hasn't changed are the expectations. Though Microsoft is wisely putting the emphasis on ink and mobility instead of handwriting recognition, these are still pen computers. How will they be received this time around? We can't wait to find out.
Blickenstorfer, a former corporate CIO, is editor-in-chief of Pen Computing Magazine and Publication Director of
Digital Camera Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.