Pen Is Not as Mighty As Computer Mouse

IF pen computing succeeds, it will look something like ... this. Well maybe a little better than this. I skipped my second- grade handwriting drills.

But you get the point. If people are going to accept pen computing, they'll have to put up with reading it. And writing it. It may seem an easy step from pen and paper to electronic handwriting, but it isn't.

For the past few months, GRiD Systems has loaned me a GRiD Model 2260. With the lid open, it's a regular 386-class notebook computer. Closed, it becomes an electronic tablet. You use a special pen to write on the screen.

The first time I tried to write on the screen, nothing happened. It took a couple of hours to figure out that the pen worked on batteries, and - wouldn't you know - it didn't have any.

Batteries installed, I tried again. Up popped a familiar face - Microsoft Windows - but this time it was called Windows for Pen Computing. I could use the pen as a mouse, click on an icon, and resize a window. Double-tapping was a little harder to get used to, but I jack-hammered persistently enough to get a program to open - a Windows program that would accept my handwriting.

My first discovery was that electronic pens work differently from the old-fashioned kind. Like early fountain pens or ballpoints, my pen leaked. Before I could get the tip onto the screen, the "ink" was already flowing. After I finished, the pen wrote on.

The result was less than successful - even by my handwriting standards.

The pen's batteries tipped me off that something was wrong. The manual said the batteries were supposed to last a year; mine lasted only a few days. I went through two sets before calling Portia Isaacson, president of a research firm called Dream IT and a maven of pen-computing. She told me I had a defective pen.

Don't blame GRiD too much. Faulty computer pens are driving all the manufacturers crazy, she says. Some manufacturers' pen problems are so bad that they haven't shipped products they have already announced.

A big reason is electronic. Computers generate so much electronic noise that the screen has a hard time distinguishing the pen noise from the unimportant background stuff. That leads to pens that spray "ink." (Yes, they call it electronic ink.)

On some machines, portions of the screen are so noisy that it's virtually impossible to write anything intelligible in those sections.

Computer companies are working on these problems. A few pen generations from now, they'll conquer them.

For the moment, most pen-computing experts say the technology will capture niche markets before it becomes mainstream. One niche is electronic forms for mobile workers: If you've taken delivery on a UPS package recently, you've probably used a pen computer to sign your name.

Eventually - but this is still years away - computers will be able to turn your handwriting into typewritten characters. Most of today's pen computers already try to do this. But the feature is not robust. After a half hour of drawing on the screen, the GRiD computer still couldn't tell it was an asterisk, even though it was prompting me for that character. So the pen computer has gone back to the factory for now. And I'm looking to re-enroll in second grade.


* Send your comments on this column to CompuServe (70541,3654) or Prodigy (BXGN44A).

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.