The Revolution That Wasn't

Pens, for those not in the know, are the Next Big Thing in computers-at least that was the industry buzz last year. Instead of using keyboards and mice to run our machines, we would soon write directly onto the screen and see the words appear there, as if by magic. Only there's been little magic in pens so far. To see why, watch how one of the new machines copes with this reporter's admittedly wretched handwriting. I take in hand a nifty-looking PC from Grid Systems, an industry pioneer. It copies the strokes of my stylus perfectly-but when it comes time to translate my hen scratch into onscreen type, the machine flops. I had written the first line from "Jabberwocky": "'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves. . ." But the translation is real gibberish: "twa? brillig and Rthe SlIthy Turks.. ." Sounds like a problem, right? Even though many of us can't even read our own handwriting, the semiliteracy of the few pen computers reaching the market (at a cost of $4,000 or more) has brought on a wave of recent criticism; a story in The New York Times last week carried the doomsaying headline WRITING IS ON THE WALL FOR MAKERS OF PEN PC'S.

That's strong stuff-but there's no doubt the pen industry has suffered from writer's block. Momenta International, with $40 million in backing, went bust because its first machine, a full-featured PC with a keyboard and pen, was too heavy, had a short battery life and a dim screen. Pen pioneers are struggling to master several new layers of technology at once-from the physics of the notoriously flaky digitizers that let users write directly onto the screen to the microprocessors and operating systems, says consultant Portia Isaacson of the Colorado-based Dream IT. Little wonder that most manufacturers have fallen at least a year behind their plans. Many who bet on pens are now biting their nails. "We're very frustrated," admits Maurice Voce, a VP at Slate, which makes such pen software as a Daytimer scheduling package. "We have a lot of products that are just sitting, waiting to go."

The rise in anti-pen sentiment has set many pen-computer makers scrambling to reposition their products. They claim pens will be an important part of portable computing and communications. Go Corp., which makes a popular operating system (the program that controls the basic computer functions) called PenPoint, used the slogan "The pen is the point" as late as February. The new slogan: "The powerful new operating system for people on the go." Some industry figures are hedging their initial pen-thusiasm. Apple Computer chairman John Sculley first talked of his coming handheld pen machine, code-named Newton, as a consumer product last January. By August, Sculley was targeting Newton at business, a retreat showing the technology is not yet cheap or friendly enough for consumers.

Yet in time, boosters say, the pen will prove mightier than the pundits, changing computers fundamentally-in small steps, not at a stroke. Defenders of the industry rightly say that focusing on what the new machines can't do ignores the many things that they already do very well. Some 40,000 early pen machines have already been sold, mainly to companies that want to automate the work of their clipboard-carrying workers such as UPS drivers. Potential users go all the way up the professional ladder. New York orthopedist Robert Swearingen has developed software that lets doctors work up their evaluations, using the stylus like a mouse to select diagnosis codes or to call up an image of, say, a wrist for sketching injuries. Swearingen says his PenPro, which he hopes to market, eliminates paperwork and creates ready research data.

Industry giants are weighing in with powerful products. Last week IBM introduced the notebook-size Thinkpad, and NCR and Grid have new PCs either debuting or in the wings. AT&T recently announced that it has teamed up with Matsushita to fund a start-up, Eo, to make small communicators; its goals seem similar to those of General Magic, an Apple spinoff.

Companies are finding was to make do with the limited handwriting-recognition technology that works today. Several systems adapt to the individual user's style (and users train themselves to write more legibly). Companies are also trying to cut down on the amount of reading the PC has to do to make it a useful product. Many programs also use "ink." That's the industry term for letting the machine store the image of what the user has written without reading it. That's half a solution: you want the machine to read text so the machine can, say, link a date-book entry about meeting Bob to Bob's phone number in your address book-but ink is good enough for jotting quick notes to yourself. If you want to put lots of information into the machine, you simply load it in from your desktop PC. The pen machine becomes a player, like the Walkman that plays tapes you recorded on your stereo. But this Walkman plays spreadsheets.

Despite the balky start, pen computing will happen. "By the end of the decade, more than half the computers shipped will have pens," at least as a friendlier mouse, predicts former Momenta exec John Rizzo. PCs probably won't become terrific readers any time soon. But as computers get smaller and more portable, keyboards become virtually useless-as anyone who has struggled with the new pocket-size PCs can attest. "I'm pretty good at typing with my thumbs," says Richard Shaffer, publisher of the Computer Letter, "but it's stupid." When pens become less frustrating than keys, the hearts and minds of the users will be won. And that will be something to write home about.

The Revolution That Wasn't | News