Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 139 / APRIL 1992 / PAGE 76

The return of the pen. (pen-based computers)(includes related articles and product listing)
by Scott Leibs, Robert Bixby

The key to the next generation of computers is the writing instrument that started it all 5000 years ago, when the burgeoning Sumerican harvest surplusses were tracked by making cuneiform marks in gobs of wet clay. The instrument was the stylus. But the technology is as new as tomorrow.

Pen-based computers have been heralded for months as the Next Big Thing. Lightweight, portable, and certainly easy to use, they're touted as great second computers for mobile professionals--a reliable way for foremen and quality control technicians to keep track of conditions at multiple points on an assembly line or in a processing plant, and a way for foot patrols to make use of station computers. And they're the first computers designed to welcome computerphobic consumers who blanch at the sight of a keyboard.

The machines are designed to be held in one hand and written on by the other. The computer translates handprinted text into computer-based characters. The computer can also be trained to recognize a number of typical gestures--for example, drawing a line through text erases it. Applications software for pen-based portables often features boxes that can be checked and menus that can be pulled down, allowing the user to enter data with a flick of the wrist. In fact, despite the image most people have of writing with a pen on a computer, actual applications for these machines are designed to minimize text input, to make it a matter of checking boxes and following menus.

The skepticism many have about a pen operating system being responsive and flexible enough to cope with real-word handwriting has led to a series of manufacturers waffling on the whole pen concept. Instead, they offer computers with a touch-sensitivie screen for graphics and fill-in-the-blank operations and a keyboard for straight entry of text. First among these computers was Momenta, a powerhouse laptop with a proprietary "pentop" environment in conjunction with MS-DOS. Recently Momenta was joined by DFM Systems' "multimodel PC" called the TraveLite. It uses EazyTouch, a database product specifically designed for use with a touchscreen. The software is DOS-based and is compatible with databases written in C, C++, Clipper, and Foxbase.

Handwriting on the Wall

Despite the flurry of excitement, there are relatively few pen-based computers available today and very little in the way of off-the-shelf software for them. The models that are available are expensive, and they're aimed at large corporations, particularly at those with employees out in the field gathering data from policyholders, hospital patients, or electric meters.

Industry watchers say, however, that high demand for those uses will drive down prices and inspire a range of software specifically aimed at consumers and small business owners. "This is the first PC technology that could get a computer into the hands of everybody," says Tim Bajarin, executive vice president of Creative Strategies International, a research and consulting organization based in Santa Clara, California, Bajarin believes sales of pen-based portables, which now number only in the tens of thousands per year, will reach 2 million per year by 1995. Other predictions from Forrester Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and BIS Strategic Decisions in Norwell, Massachusetts, estimate sales at about half of that figure. But even the more conservative figures suggest that the pen-based computer will find mainstream acceptance very quickly. Bajarin believes that by 1995, over 40 percent of all portable PCs sold will be pen-based.

Dataquest states that in 1990 there were about 8,000 pen-based computers shipped in the U.S. Dataquest expects the figures to be about 41,000 units in 1991 and anticipates that in 1995 about 3,000,000 pen-based computers will be shipped in the U.S. That would be 14 percent of all PCs and 30 percent of all portable PCs.

The Theory of Evolution

Observers generally agree about how these computers will evolve. Pen-based portables are already being used in a number of industries where workers fill out forms--on loading docks, in realtor's offices, and in a host of similar places. It's a fairly easy task to design software that resembles a form and can transfer data entered by a stylus into a centralized database.

A little further down the road--just over the horizon, in fact--is the machine that will interpret both printed letters and script, include wireless modems and other peripheral devices, weigh only a pound or so, use long-life batteries, and carry a price tag well below the daunting $3,000-$5,000 average cost of today's machines.

GRiD Systems (owned by Tandy), the first to offer a true pen-based computer, is one manufacturer that plans to pursue the technology wherever it leads, from large corporations to home users. While Microsoft and GO have squabbled over whether the standard for pen environments should be based on a proprietary operating system (GO) or the heavy equipment requirements of Windows (Microsoft), GRiD has sold pen-based computers by the thousands that use nothing sexier than MS-DOS operating on an 8088 CPU. Exciting changes are afoot, however. New GRiDPADs have been added to the line that provide for radio linkage to local area networks, 386 microprocessors, and hard disks. GRiD is also licensing its PenRight application development environment to third-party software vendors so GRiD will be able to offer a selection of applications for its successful pen computers. While most of its sales have been to major American corporations (including Kelloggs and Philips Petroleum) and the U.S. Army, it is actively pursuing distribution to the individual computer user, and GRiDPADs may soon appear on the shelves of Tandy's new retail arm, the Computer City stores.

Ken Dulaney, director of marketing for portable computers at GRiD, says, "We draw a distinction between pen-based hand-held computers, which is what we are marketing today to business, and tablet computers, which we think will hit the home market in a big way about 1993-1994." Dulaney says the home market will require durable machines priced under $1,000 for which plenty of basic software--word processors, spreadsheets, and the like--is available. WordPerfect, Lotus, and others are already planning pen-based versions of their products.

Dulaney also says GRiD intends to offer machines that support the two best-known operating systems designed specifically for pen-based computers: GO's PenPoint and Microsoft's Windows with Pen Computing (more commonly called Pen Windows). Other hardware vendors, including IBM and NCR, have made similar pledges.

In Search of the Right GUI

You might wonder why a special pen operating system is necessary in light of the fact that GRiD and others have already demonstrated models that are DOS compatible. The new operating systems tap the power of the pen. Vern Raburn, chairman of Slate (a small Scottsdale, Arizona, startup that's focusing exclusively on pen-based software), says the major benefit of the new machines is their "pencentricity." He says Slate's litmus test for new software is simple: Is it as good as paper and pencil? "Every time we come up with new technology," Raburn explains, "we try to [tack] it onto existing technology instead of using it in new ways."

Slate makes a product called Pen-Apps, a software tool set that makes it easier for application developers to develop software for pen-based machines. The idea is to give the user as much freedom as possible. "You don't have to stay within the lines when you write something, for example," Raburn says, "and the machine can know what you mean in different contexts. Sometimes a circle can be an edit mark, other times a graphic, and other times simply the number 0 or the letter O."

The main advantage of pen-based computers over other portables is their ability to recognize handwriting. Today's machines only read printed text, but the ability to read script is only a few years away. Observers say that it's vital if the machines are to fulfill their promise of feeling as natural to users as pen and paper.

Today machines employ a number of different techniques to recognize the user's printing. Pattern-recognition--matching the user's scrawl against a known set of letters and numbers--is one way. Typically, it accounts for about 35 percent of the job. Another technique is heuristics, a set of rules, such as "I before E except after C," that help the machine narrow the likely options. Pen-based computers also capture dynamic stroke information, such as the direction, speed, and intensity of a stroke, which can be useful in differentiating a V from a check mark.

Users of pen-based machines that employ the PenPoint operating system from GO spend about an hour to 90 minutes in training mode, during which the machine essentially gets to know the handwriting of its user. As Raburn says, "It becomes the most personal of computers." Experts predict that in a few years this process will happen online and will be invisible to the user.

Slate has also announced PenBook, which turns a book in PostScript format into a virtual book that can be read on a pen-based computer. The user can add notes or search for text within the book but can't actually edit it. This is intended for creating easily carried editions of technical manuals and other kinds of guides that might be better stored in electronic form.

Like others in the industry, Raburn says that while the near-term market for pen-based portables is the business world, a much bigger market is just around the corner. "Today we're selling PCs mainly to people who already have one and are upgrading. There's a large percentage of people who have said, 'Thanks, but no thanks,' to PCs. This technology will refuel the industry with a whole set of new users."

The potential of pen-based machines hasn't escaped the notice of international computer makers. More than a dozen Japanese companies are already developing machines. But Raburn predicts that most Japanese companies will focus their efforts on their domestic market, giving U.S. companies a rare opportunity to get the upper hand in a rapidly emerging technology.

A Canadian company, MicroSlate, has a line of Datellite "Pen 'N Touch" computers specially hardened to meet NATO military specs (you can drop them from waist level to the pavement without damaging them). MicroSlate claims to have had the first pen-based computer on the market but has been delayed in its bid for FCC approval to sell its machines in the U.S. Now the machines are available, and they've already started to make inroads into the market, particularly where the ability to resist damage is crucial (such as in emergency medical services). For just under $6,000 they offer 4MB of RAM and a 60MB hard disk. They're ready to run Windows with Pen Computing when Microsoft begins marketing it.

Given all the activity in this field, it's clear that many U.S. firms are ready to face the challenge. However the pen-based market plays out, computer users are certain to see the prices of pen-based portables drop and the features improve at a dizzying pace.