Entelligence is a column by technology strategist and author Michael Gartenberg, a man whose desire for a delicious cup of coffee and a quality New York bagel is dwarfed only by his passion for tech. In these articles, he'll explore where our industry is and where it's going -- on both micro and macro levels -- with the unique wit and insight only he can provide.
When it comes to futuristic concepts, few ideas have captured the imagination like pen-based computing. The idea of doing away with a cumbersome keyboard for navigating and entering information has been a Holy Grail ever since Captain Kirk signed his first digital clipboard in space, but here in our century the concept has met with little success. Most recently, Microsoft's Tablet PC operating system has failed to take the world by storm, and lots of platforms, from the Momenta PC and Pen Windows, to the Newton and the PalmPilot, have come and gone while failing to shift the masses from their keyboards. Even smart phones, led by the iPhone, have shifted from being poster children for pen-based platforms to adopting finger touch and virtual keyboards for text entry.

Several factors have slowed or doomed pen-based platforms, but perhaps they can be overcome. First, handwriting recognition has never lived up to its hype, nor can it. From the outset, the notion of pen-based systems has been linked with the concept of handwriting recognition, which hasn't served the market well. It's really not the fault of the technology, though. As I've said before, if you can't read your own handwriting, then it isn't reasonable to expect a computer to be able to. The pinnacle of the handwriting-recognition disaster came shortly after the introduction of Apple's Newton, when the device and its handwriting software were ridiculed in the comic strip Doonesbury. The concept never really recovered, although the Palm OS's Graffiti recognition software cleverly shifted the burden of error from the device to the user, a brilliant move that reset expectations.

"The key to overcoming the shortcomings of handwriting recognition is to emphasize the other aspects of a pen based user interface."

The key to overcoming the shortcomings of handwriting recognition is to emphasize the other aspects of a pen based user interface, such as electronic ink for note taking, and to use the pen for things like consuming and basic editing of information.

Second, most hardware has been inadequate, even when the software was mostly good enough. Pen computing loses much of its powerful allure when too many trade-offs are needed in order to gain the pen-based functions. This is precisely the problem that has plagued the generations of tablet PCs.

Too often, users are forced to deal with shortcomings when it comes to weight (tablets should be light enough to use comfortably in tablet mode), battery life and keyboards. A good tablet PC would have to be portable enough to deliver a good pen experience while not compromising on screen, keyboard or battery so that it can deliver a good notebook experience as well.

Pen computing isn't totally dead, but it is becoming stagnant. Even Microsoft's Windows Mobile platform looks more and more like it's being optimized for touch and not for pen, which is a little ironic -- for small devices where browsing is more important than content creation, the pen is an ideal navigation tool. The PC is a different riff on the same story. Despite Microsoft's best efforts, tablet PCs haven't really caught on. Still, with vendors like Lenovo still creating some pretty interesting pen based hardware, perhaps we'll see a resurgence of the pen with Windows 7. There are a lot of places where the pen is mightier than the keyboard, but it seems the market is less enamored with pens than fingers.

I personally stopped using a tablet as a daily machine a while ago and switched to a lightweight laptop that gets me close to nine hours of battery life. I tried switching back to a tablet while working on a report about the technology but ultimately gave up again. Here's what I would do if I were Microsoft and trying to jump start the pen once more:
  • Raise awareness. Most consumers/end-users simply do not know this thing exists, especially when Apple's message is that pens aren't relevant.. You can't build excitement without awareness. And where there is some excitement around touch screens, it's all related to finger use and not pens. Apple has done a great job changing the conversation from pen to finger. As I've said, even Microsoft's pen-based phones are being re-tooled to optimize for fingers over stylii.
  • Evangelize the easiest markets. For me that's not business but education. Students are a great market. They notes in class with pens, can record lectures with software like OneNote, and do research. In short, it's the ideal instrument for a student at a time when more students need a laptop and NEED the features of a tablet. Where's the courseware for educators? How about evangelizing the teachers and principals and getting these devices in their hands?
  • Get in the channel. I used to have a few really cool pen devices here here. If you're in the area, come over and I'll show them to you, since you aren't going to see them in a store near you anytime soon. Even the few models that are actually in the retail channel are locked down with the pen removed. This might be a little hard for some folks to believe, but if you can't pick up the computer and use the pen, you might have a hard time convincing people to purchase one.
This isn't a case of poor software or bad handwriting recognition or any of the other things that have doomed pen based computing in the past. This is simply a weak job of evangelizing developers, confused marketing and ignorant buyers. So, do you think the pen is dead? Has touch and virtual keyboards become the default for mobile or will Windows 7 breath new life into an old concept?

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Entelligence: Why the pen isn't mightier than the keyboard