Is the Pen Mightier Than the Keyboard?

BLEENK. Bleenk. Bleenk. The computer operator uses a pen to touch three corners of a large piece of paper attached to a digitized pad and then prints her name. On the computer screen, each letter she writes pops up immediately. Called pen-based computing, the technology is generating considerable excitement and will help change the way we use computers. Today, computer users are keyboard-bound. If they want to put in information, they have to type it. That's OK for high-speed typists. But people who hunt and peck with two fingers might work faster with a pen.

Editing what you've written? A pen is much faster. No need to type direction keys on a keyboard. Just place the pen where you want to make the change. Need to delete a word or sentence? Just scratch it out with the pen. Want to insert a letter or word? Write in a little caret just the way a proofreader would, then write the letters you want to insert. Some experimental models let you do this directly on the screen.

The computer understands what you write by recognizing the strokes you make. Take the capital letter ``E.'' The Microsoft Corporation, which is working on a pen-based system, has found 484 different ways to write that letter. Some people might start with the bottom horizontal line and draw it right-to-left, for example. The computer has to recognize all these variations.

When the company's chairman tried an early version of the system, it wouldn't recognize his lowercase ``r.'' He writes it backward - starting with the right-hand tip of the curve and finishing with the vertical stroke. (Microsoft researchers wisely decided to include the chairman's ``r'' in subsequent versions.)

The computer also has to recognize ``i'' and ``t'' even if writers don't dot or cross them right away. When I experimented last week with a pen-based system from Communication Intelligence Corporation (CIC), Menlo Park, Calif., the machine read my name with no errors except the capital ``I.'' Without the top and bottom lines of the ``I,'' the letter was translated as the number ``1.'' One ``T'' also came out as a ``1'' because I crossed it too slowly.

But CIC and other companies have improved on that five-year-old system. By the end of this year, Microsoft and Go Corporation expect to release competing standard operating systems for pen-based computing. These systems will allow software and computer companies to begin building products that use the technology.

One of the biggest immediate uses will be in portable computers, especially the models that allow you to write on the screen.

Anyone who has tried to make computer notes in a phone booth will understand why. It is almost impossible to talk on the phone (receiver propped on a shoulder), hold the computer with one hand, and type with the other. A quick scribble with a pen is much easier. If the scribbling can be done directly on a computer screen, then immense possibilities begin to emerge.

Grid Systems Corporation already markets a lightweight computer that allows salesmen, clerks, and government workers to fill out specialized forms with a special pen. The new operating systems should allow more general uses.

Executives could update their electronic calendars while on the go. Secretaries could take dictation, then feed their notes directly into a word-processor without retyping. (Only printed letters are recognized so far. Researchers expect the software will eventually be able to recognize cursive writing as well.)

CIC President James Dao thinks desktop computers will also use the technology. Corporations could make new workers immediately productive on computers because they could write and not type. They could set up a security system that would recognize an individual's signature. Even children would benefit from a pen, Mr. Dao says, because their hands are too small to develop touch-typing skills.

Some observers say pen-based computing will introduce computers to a new segment of the population. But only when researchers create a reliable system that recognizes voice as well as handwriting will the keyboard fall from its preeminent position.

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