Switched On: Time to write off pen computing

apple newton

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a weekly column about the future of technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

The last Switched On discussed the shrinking PDA market. Indeed, in the graveyard of failed technology products, the pen computing section is overrun with tombstones - GRiDPad, Zoomer, PenWindows, Momenta, CreuisePAD, Newton, Envoy, Marco, Magic Link, EO, Avigo, Clie, CrossPad, TransNote, Clio, Qbe, Audrey, and Smart Display, to name a few. From innovative startups such as GO Corporation to some of the world's most successful consumer technology companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Motorola and Sony, pens have consistently yielded red ink.

History has simply taken the style out of the stylus. In its early days, pen input held promise as an alternative for those who couldn't type. Typing, though, with all of its significant inefficiencies, is rapidly becoming a skill as basic as reading and arithmetic. Apart from the social faux pas of typing in a meeting (a taboo that seems to be fading quickly in corporate conference rooms and universities), keyboards are simply better for taking notes. Furthermore, much like the head of the absent-minded, the keyboard is infrequently lost because it is attached. Contrast that with styli that disappear faster than the CEO at an emergency HP board meeting.

It�s not just a question of execution. Unlike other �holy grails� of personal computing, such as voice recognition, artificial intelligence, or crash-proof applications, the benefits of pen computing have limited demand in the real world Consumers like the idea of interfacing with a pen, but when it comes time to actually interact, they prefer the rich robust taste of tactile buttons. It really says something about a technology when handheld users would rather use an ergonomic disaster like the Treo 600�s keyboard than the �elegance� of pen-based alternatives.

Advocates have traditionally countered that pen interfaces can be operated using one hand, freeing the other one to cradle the computer or hold the handheld. However, as the millions of active mobile text message users in Asian and European countries have shown us, consumers are willing to input text even with primitive keypads. Such text entry, while slow, trumps the pen in convenience in that it can be accomplished with the same hand that is holding the device.

Surveying the current crop of mainstream pen-based products reveals that they aren�t doing much to move pen computing toward prominence:

  • Tablet PCs, which have thus far outlived their doomed consumer cousin, the Smart Display, were originally heralded as featherweight slate computers intended to expand the notebook market. Customer fear of the �keyboardectomy� soon sank in, though. Most Tablet PCs have come to market as convertibles, which are perceived as expensive notebook PCs. Microsoft remains hopeful that, as the cost of these come down, we�ll see broader adoption, but most customers simply don�t care about pen input even at a small premium.

  • Handhelds have been the most successful pen-based computers, but as the market has matured, it looks as though their signature input method is on the verge of being erased. On the high end, consumers are opting for miniature keyboards. On the low end, as these products aim for the cell phone market, they are being controlled by keypads.

Nintendo DS

Nintendo has made such a big deal out of the Nintendo DS�s touch screen that the portable console�s tag line is tied to its input rather than its dual displays. So far, though, the pen is not proving mightier than Link�s sword. While the jury is still out on the DS, the stylus input is another distraction to an interface already fragmented by two screens. If game designers don�t figure out what to do with it soon, it risks becoming feature baggage as they opt for cross-platform titles that accommodate the PlayStation Portable.

Pen computers have two compelling applications � forms and diagrams. Forms remain the heart of what larger pen computers are used for today, and pen computers will always have a home in vertical data-gathering applications. Graphics, particularly intelligent diagrams, were one of the most underrated features of the Newton operating system. While it would be nice to see a better diagramming input solution for the average business graphics user, add-on graphics tablets, such as those from Wacom, make the most sense for professionals. Annotation is also smoother using a pen interface, but doesn�t represent enough of an advantage.

More than a decade after the Newton and 15 years after the DOS-based GRiDPad, handwriting recognition remains slower and less accurate than typing, active digitizers remain expensive, and marketers remain misled about the sketchy demand for pen computers. With the niche exception of vertical data collection applications, the pen has run dry.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at