I’ve always been something of a geek. Somewhere in the basement (alongside the collection of 8-bit Ataris) are my old Apple Newton Messagepads. I loved the Messagepads – they were far superior organizers to any other handheld at the time, and with the intelligent handwriting recognition they even beat many of the devices available today. I’m still angry at Steve Jobs for killing them. And I’m tickled by the fact that it’s led to a nice bit of harmonic convergence – but you’ll have to read the entire article to see what I mean.
I’ve been embracing technology my entire life. And like most of us, I eagerly await the day when computer are small enough to be implants that communicate directly with my cerebral cortex and optic nerve.
That day is not yet here.
Until it is, we have to make compromises. Like a phone that’s as powerful as a computer but with a tiny (compared to a laptop) screen and an annoying “virtual keyboard”.
Until we get that cyber-interface, the real limiting factors aren’t the size of the computer – but the size of our input and output devices. If we can solve the input/output problem, then our computers can be those phone-shaped gadgets that live in our pockets. And the output problem isn’t too bad. Most smartphones have decent displays, really – and for the truly cyberchic there are gadgets like Google Glass – headmounted displays that superimpose your computer display output over your view of reality.
Input is the real hard one to crack. There used to be this group of crazy kids at MIT in the “wearables” lab that focused on wearable computers – input, output, cpu, webcams, you name it, they had a vest for it. They’ve come a long way, really – most of the projects don’t make you look like a gargoyle anymore. And I remember that my favorite solution to the input problem came from here….one of the students had taken a standard keyboard and broken it in half and bunged it up to the front of his vest, keys facing outward. All he had to do to type was to cross his arms on his chest and he could type “normally” (and yes, dear readers, I did hesitate before using that word).
What it comes down to is that the most natural way for us to communicate – to provide input – is to either speak or to write.
Speech Recognition has been a “holy grail” for years – we’ve all played with various systems for doing so, from Dragon Systems to Apple’s own built in tools in OS 9, to Siri. Yes it’s gotten better, but until a better discrimination filter is built in it still won’t work in a noisy room, or when there are conversations going on. And sometimes there are things I want to put down on paper or in an IM that I do not want to say aloud in a room full of people!
And that brings us to handwriting.
Yes, keyboards work fine. Except they take up space – even those virtual keyboards occupy far too much real estate on my phone and iPad. If I’m going to have a larger device like an iPad anyway, it just makes sense to be able to write on it. After all, my beloved Apple Newton Messagepads had handwriting recognition almost 20 years ago. And no matter how much teasing it got (who else remembers “weave me a cone, yoo cupid bat”?), it worked. Newton got bad press at the time because the CPU was too slow, so the recognition was never as good as it could be on that particular hardware.
The Newton’s Handwriting Recognition (HWR) software was written by a company called ParaGraph International. The recognizer itself was later bundled and sold separately as a product called “Calligrapher”, and ran on various handheld devices – and ultimately was purchased by Microsoft for use in their tablet computer OS. And if you’ve ever used it, you know that it also just works.
Meanwhile, the folks who wrote Calligrapher, and the original Apple Newton HWR, formed a new company called PhatWare, with the idea that they would write even better handwriting recognition software. PhatWare is now the maker of the popular award-winning iPad and iPhone handwriting apps WritePad and PhatPad. Lots of other options for handwriting apps have popped up recently too, so now even the worst typist can enter data quickly and easily on the go.
We liked these technologies so much that we incorporated support for them into our own iCERF iPad app, making iCERF the first choice for a mobile friendly electronic laboratory notebook (ELN) solution for use anywhere in the lab or field. It’s so darn cool to be walking around writing on my tablet, just like Captain Kirk scribbling on those pad things Janice Rand was always handing him. It’s the future, and it’s here today. And what makes me happiest is that it’s a piece of my old Apple Newton come full circle, back to the Apple fold and back into my hands, in an application (iCERF) that I have so passionately poured much of my life’s energy into.
And best of all, it just works.