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

By Conrad H. Blickenstorfer
Issue 50

When we founded Pen Computing ten years ago everyone thought we were crazy to start a magazine in what was seen as a thoroughly discredited field. How times have changed.
What you're holding in your hands is the 50th issue of Pen Computing Magazine, the latest in almost ten years' worth of reviews, opinions, contemplations and news on leading edge technology and alternate input methods. That warrants a brief look back over how it all happened.

When we had the dubious idea of launching a magazine dedicated to pen computing back in 1993, most industry insiders laughed at us and predicted failure even before our first issue. After all, at that point pen computing was ridiculed and scorned as a discredited technology, one that had been long on hype and short on substance. From today's vantage point, with tens of millions of PDAs and Pocket PCs out there, and with Microsoft heavily banking on the Tablet PC and digital ink, it's hard to believe that just a decade ago pen computing was considered dead. Here's how it happened.

Why pen computing in the first place? Because a lot of people don't feel comfortable with keyboards. They would rather use something familiar like pen and paper. And because keyboards are bulky and not always convenient to use. In fact, legend has it that when Remington and Sons created the first commercial typewriter in the 1870s, they specifically placed common letters in hard to reach places to slow typists down so that the elaborate machinery didn't jam quite as often. Whether that's true or not, no one really knows. The QWERTY keyboard layout certainly isn't optimal, but we're stuck with it, and people get used to everything.

Those shortcomings notwithstanding, the idea of using something other than a keyboard to enter data into a machine has been around for a long time. A patent for the recognition of handwritten numbers to control machines was filed in the US back in 1914. Another patent for machine recognition of handwriting was filed in 1938. The RAND corporation developed digitizing tablets for handwriting recognition in 1956 and had a character recognizer similar to Graffiti in 1966. In 1968, Dr. Alan Kay described his vision of a notebook tablet computer that he called the "Dynabook." The Dynabook, Kay said, was going to be a "dynamic medium for creative thought, capable of synthesizing all media--pictures, animation, sound and text--through the intimacy and responsiveness of the personal computer." The name "Dynabook" was later appropriated by Toshiba which sold its early pen tablets as "Dynapads." The 1980s saw the emergence of a number of handwriting recognition companies. In 1987, Apple Computer unveiled the "Knowledge Navigator," a concept computer that opened like a book, had speech recognition, built-in camera, wireless communication, and intelligent information retrieval. Apple commissioned a terrific video that showed how it all would work.

The history of personal pen computing products begins in 1989 when Iranian entrepreneur Kamran Elahian founded Momenta. Momenta built a 386/20 based pen tablet that looks very much like some of the latest Tablet PC slates. However, too much hype resulted in unrealistic expectations and Momenta would shut down in 1992 after having burned through $40 million in venture capital. This did not keep others from trying. Jeff Hawkins, who would go on to invent the Palm Pilot and start Handspring, designed a series of pen computers, including a pen convertible, at GRiD. By 1991, despite Momenta's problems, the pen computing hype was coming to a fever pitch. GO Corporation developed PenPoint, an entirely new operating environment designed around the pen. EO was spun off from GO to build PenPoint pen computers. While early GRiD machines ran PenDOS, a version of DOS that supported pen input, Microsoft worked on Windows for Pen Computing and engaged in a fierce competition with GO's PenPoint. In 1992 things came to a head. GO released PenPoint. Microsoft released Windows for Pen Computing. Momenta unveiled its own user interface. Lexicus and others released handwriting recognition engines. In 1992 and 1993 EO, NCR, Samsung, Dauphin, IBM, Fujitsu, Toshiba and others released pen tablets that looked remarkably similar to the Tablet PC pen slates of today. A 1993 Fujitsu 325Point, for example, measured 11.7 x 8.7 x 1.2 inches, weighed three pounds, and sold for US$1,695, roughly the same as a contemporary tablet from HP, Fujitsu or Motion. On the other hand, those early models were saddled with dim monochrome displays, slow processors, weak batteries, and minuscule memory and hard drives. That and a general disillusion with handwriting recognition and the lack of compelling applications caused the bubble to burst in 1993. Momenta closed its doors, Samsung gave up after the PenMaster, NCR dropped out, GRiD was sold to AST and liquidated, Dauphin and EO went bankrupt, and Compaq, IBM, NEC and Toshiba all stopped their pen projects.

After 1994, pen computers retreated to vertical markets and became essentially unavailable to consumers. Microsoft, having defeated the PenPoint initiative, lost interest. The company went on to offer Pen Service 2.0 for Windows 95, but it was a half-hearted effort and not very successful.

So that was the environment Pen Computing Magazine was born into. We came onto the scene just as the party was over and all the instant pen computing experts and champions had left for the next big thing. Pen computing was almost a dirty word. At trade shows there were all but a handful of pen technology products, and those usually by obscure companies for very specialized markets. We catalogued all of those products and reviewed as many as we could for those who were still interested in the field.

Fortunately, a second branch of pen computing products was just emerging, PDAs. Apple's Newton MessagePad created a lot of excitement, and there were a number of other early PDAs based on the GEOS and Magic Cap environments. Once again, handwriting recognition (or the lack of it) proved to be an Achilles heel for an otherwise promising platform, but we still loved the Newton which quickly developed into a terrifically useful device. The MP110, MP120, MP130, and then the magnificent MP2000 and 2100 followed the original 1993 Newton MessagePad in its all too brief tenure that ended in 1998 when Steve Jobs regained the reins at Apple and pulled the plug. But the Newton was not alone. After his early pen computing work at GRiD, Jeff Hawkins originated the Casio Z-7000/Tandy Zoomer PDA and then went on to revolutionize the industry with the Palm Pilot. Motorola gave some fascinating early views at wireless communicators with the 1994 Envoy and Marco products, both way ahead of their time. HP tried to build on their success with tiny DOS-based handhelds with the GEOS-based OmniGo clamshell that converted into a Graffiti-driven tablet, but failed. Sharp got into the act in 1995 with a PDA that wasn't a PDA, the ill-fated keyboard-based Zaurus.

1996 saw both the Palm Pilot and the introduction of Windows CE. While the little Microsoft clamshells were mostly failures, the Palm Pilot took off like a rocket. In early 1998, Microsoft introduced its own Palm-style platform and called it Palm PC. That did not sit well with Palm who enlisted legal aid. Microsoft changed the name to the awkward "Palm-size PC" and eventually the much better "Pocket PC."

The last few years of the 20th century were thus a curious scene of specialized pen computers trying to eke out low volume sales in various vertical markets, and a number of PDA platforms battling for supremacy, or at least getting the consumer's attention. In many respects, those were the glory years of Pen Computing Magazine. 9/11 and the dotcom crash were yet in an unimaginable future, and no other publisher would touch our field with a ten foot pole. Palm ruled supreme in the PDA market, selling tens of millions of unassuming little handhelds, with Microsoft looking on and tenaciously trying to find its own successful formula, which eventually arrived, to some extent, in the Pocket PC.

The early years of the new millennium were grim. Terrorist attacks, a jittery economy, the dotcom crash, loss of faith in technology companies. Yet, good ideas don't go away and none other than Microsoft itself unexpectedly picked up the pen computing banner once again with the announcement of the Tablet PC initiative in 2001. Regardless of whether it was the sheer merit of the pen and paper metaphor, Bill Gates' personal interest in tablets, or just an effort to brings some excitement into the increasingly boring and generic world of PCs, the arrival of the Tablet PC brought pen computing back into the mainstream. Whether it will stay there is still anyone's guess. Hardware technology is now advanced enough to make tablets feasible, but pen and ink-centric software suffers from a decade of neglect. Most of those technologies essentially remain at mid-1990s levels and there's a lot of catching up to do. As a result, there isn't as of yet a Tablet PC "killer application" and without that it's difficult to create excitement and sales.

So ten years later, Pen Computing finds itself right in the thick of things. But where once we were the lone voice in the wilderness, now almost every PC mag proclaims itself an instant pen computing expert. -

Conrad H. 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