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The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard?

Doonesbury comic strip on Newton

This comic lampooned the Newton, but the criticism could have applied to many pen-based computers and handhelds of the time.

The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard?

The concept seemed sound. In an era when most managers didn’t type and small computers were new, the familiar pad and pen was a logical approach. In the 1980s, excited entrepreneurs convinced investors that pen-based mobile computers were the next big wave.

Many companies hopped on the bandwagon. But early products such as the EO Personal Communicator and the Apple Newton were big, expensive, and slow…and barely recognized handwriting. Except for specialized markets, the first generation of pen computers flopped, and about a billion dollars of investment evaporated.

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GRiDPad tablet computer

The GRiDPad wasn’t the first commercial tablet computer—the Linus Write-Top came earlier—but it was the first to succeed. Designed by Jeff Hawkins, it featured his handwriting recognition software, which led to Graffiti on the PalmPilot.

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Newton MessagePad

Newton, the pet project of Apple CEO John Sculley, was an elegant attempt at realizing the pen-based dream. Like the EO, it was beautifully designed, but suffered many of the same faults, including poor handwriting recognition and high price.

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EO Personal Communicator 440

EO used GO Corporation’s sophisticated PenPoint operating system, one of the first created for graphical tablets. The EO, a full-featured tablet computer with a wireless modem, previewed the future but failed in the market.

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Pulse Smartpen

This ballpoint pen had an embedded computer, audio recorder, and infrared camera for handwriting recognition on special paper. It stored what was written for later uploading to a computer and synchronized it with the recorded audio.

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Cardboard GRiDpad Convertible prototype

Hawkins wanted the Convertible to deliver the best of both worlds: a pen-based tablet when the screen was folded flat, a laptop with keyboard when it was up. This prototype helped him figure out the intricacies of the hinge mechanism.

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Apple Newton, MacWorld cover

When the Newton finally arrived in 1993, it had been in development for six years -- costing around $100 million -- and was greatly anticipated.

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And, in the field tests, it turned out that people didn’t understand how to use the devices properly. Insurance adjusters out at storm and disaster sites would...even try to use the tablet as a kneeling pad to protect their pants if they were in a muddy place.

Steve Hammdescribing IBM’s original ThinkPad tablet computer, from The Race for Perfect, 2009.
Dedicated Devices
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UPS DIAD II (Delivery Information Acquisition Device)

In 1991, United Parcel Service (UPS) drivers began using dedicated handheld devices to record signatures, read barcodes, plan routes and exchange data over analog mobile phone networks. These saved 59 million pages of paper annually.

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Psion Workabout prototype

This “skeleton” prototype contained removable modules so that the designer could see and model its internal configuration. The Workabout was a ruggedized, industrial version of the Psion Series 3, and was used for inventories, meter readings, electronic order collection and more.

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Franklin Rocket e-Book

In the late 1990s, the appearance of credible e-book readers like the Rocket prompted tech pundits to predict the end of conventional publishing—a few years too early.

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Keywords
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