Future in my hand. (Momenta's new pentop computer) (column)
by Robert Bixby
Ever wish you'd been around when Apple got started? Well, I got a glimpse of something that made me feel excited about personal computing all over again.
I wasn't among the cheer-leaders when people first started mumbling about pen computing a couple of years ago. Long ago I left legal pads behind in favor of typing. The last thing I wanted to do was give up being able to type--a process that very nearly keeps up with my thoughts--and return to the slow hand.
Writing slowly enough to be legible (even to myself) would mean letting ideas go by and dreading second thoughts that would require rewriting. Pen-based computing might be embraced by people ignorant of the advantages of keyboards, but I knew better.
That was my mindset as lapproached the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York one June afternoon for a product demonstration of something new (hohum) in pen-based computing. The address of the demonstration and the fact that the call came from the Regis Mckenna agency did make me take notice, however.
I was met at the elevator and led to a quietly elegant suite where I saw something that may very well change the way we conceive of the computer for the next generation or two--Momenta's entry into pen-based computing, called pentop computing to distinguish its approach from that of Grid. Momenta's reason for differentiating its machine is that it understands the resistance of people like me and has provided for us a fully functional keyboard to supplement the touchscreen.
The keyboard represents the company's philosophy that the thing pen-based computers do the worst is handwriting recognition, and, ironically, this is the activity that uses the most processing time. It makes more sense to process text through a keyboard and use the touchscreen as a pointer and editing tool.
Regular readers of this column will recall my long search for the mouse killer--some device to eliminate the need for desktop rodents forever. The problems I've encountered so far have been response speed and the fact that most GUIs were designed for mice in the first place, which puts any other device at an instant disadvantage.
Momenta, while built on top of a fairly conventional 386SX DOS-based 4MB system, uses a specially designed GUI (in 1.5MB of ROM) that takes specific advantage of the pen and the motions peculiarly suited to pen input. For example, it can detect when you're trying to create an ellipse or a rectangle on the drawing screen.
When you want to embellish or delete an object, you move the pen in one of six directions from the object's center point--a flick of the wrist, and the object is gone or copied to the clipboard or ready to move, or a menu is called, or a file is opened or closed, and so forth--the commands relate to the current activity. The range of actions is complete. Recognizing pen movement is the province of a special chip, so response is lightning quick, and it takes nothing away from the CPU.
It's clear from the moment you sit down with the wedge-shaped computer that a great deal of thought went into this device before its design was implemented. The wedge shape, for example, fits as naturally on the lap as a sketch pad. The RAM expansion uses standard SIMMs, so you won't have to pay a lot for your memory.
The system is equipped with a cold shutdown, which means that when you aren't actually interacting with the computer, for all intents and purposes, it's turned off with almost no battery drain. The result is about six hours of battery life from its ten standard penlight cells in continuous use.
Since the machine is built on an Intel chip and MS-DOS, you'll be able to run standard DOS software from the machine's 40MB hard drive as well as from the pen-based GUI Momenta will build in.
Although Momenta opted not to attempt raw handwriting recognition, the GUI is capable of deciphering print, so you'll be able to enter text in dialog boxes, for example. It would be prohibitive to enter text this way for word processing, however.
Watch Momenta. It has the future written all over it.