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Published in TidBITS 18.
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Handwriting Technology

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A number of articles in recent trade magazines have talked about wonders of new laptops that will recognize ordinary handwriting. Three companies, GRiD Systems, Go Corp., and Active Book Company all have announced or are shipping a computer that performs this feat. In addition, Microsoft is working on extensions to DOS and OS/2 (and probably Windows) to allow PC-clones to recognize handwriting. At least the Go system, called PenPoint, and the Active Book entry, which uses the Unix-based Helios OS, are not based on MS-DOS.

These computers and their respective operating systems are all quite interesting, but a more practical question does show its ugly head. What good are these beasties? GRiD specifically markets its current laptop, which can recognize neatly handwritten block characters, towards people who fill in forms in non-desk environments. The other two machines have yet to see the light of day, although IBM, Lotus, and Borland are betting on Go's technology and have already licensed it. Active Book is aiming its computer at executives who don't type, although we have little sympathy for executives who can't type faster than they can write since typing is a far more efficient method of entering text.

Other than the small number of people who fit into GRiD's niche, there seem to be few other good uses for handwriting as an main input method. The best argument so far seems to be that the pen offers an easy way to input both text and graphics, although it certainly would not help those of us who are genetically unable to draw. Other advantages include reduced size of laptops, quiet entry of text when in meetings or libraries, the ability to do something with the other hand such as holding a book or a telephone, ease of use for those who only have one hand, the ability to check handwriting for security's sake, and finally, the ability to easily input text in a language that uses pictures, such as Chinese. Of these, the final one seems to be the most persuasive, considering the enormous keyboards used for entering Chinese text.

All these advantages are fine and dandy, but there are many disadvantages still to be addressed with this technology. The first seems to be the simple problem that handwriting is a slow and inefficient method of entering text. A pen-based laptop would be useless without a keyboard for writing anything longer than short memos. Other problems have to do with the small practical points surrounding a laptop. For instance, to write on a screen, the screen would have to be flat in front of you, which isn't a comfortable (or safe) position to work for any amount of time. One solution would be to use a drafting table, although they aren't particularly portable. The pen would have to be attached to the computer in some way or it would incredibly easy to lose - not a big deal with a ballpoint, but more of a pain with your input stylus. The screen would get dirty quickly because of the constant contact with your skin (most of us write with our hand rubbing on the writing surface), which would reduce visibility and clarity.

In essence, then, handwriting recognition will at some point be a useful adjunct to other methods of data entry, most notably the keyboard, but it has quite a ways to go before it could be standard on personal computers. One positive reaction handwriting technology might have is to force designers to think more carefully about the relationship their machines have with the environment they are used in. Then devices that are more efficient, easier to use, and safer (carpal tunnel syndrome is a nasty problem) might start showing up on the market.

Information from:
James H. Coombs -- JAZBO@BROWNVM
Dr Madill -- drmadill@sunee.waterloo.edu
John Turnbull -- turnbull@john.CES.CWRU.Edu
Michael Portuesi -- portuesi@tweezers.esd.sgi.com
KESSLER -- IME9JFK@UCLAMVS.BITNET
Adam C. Engst -- TidBITS Editor

Related articles:
InfoWorld -- 20-Aug-90, Vol. 12 #34, pg. 5
PC WEEK -- 20-Aug-90, Vol. 7 #33, pg. 1
InfoWorld -- 23-Jul-90, Vol. 12 #30, pg. 1
PC WEEK -- 23-Jul-90, Vol. 7 #29, pg. 135

 

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