Ever since personal computers went onto the market in the late 1970s, manufacturers have sought to make them smaller, more powerful and easier to use. But even the so-called laptop computers, introduced in the late 1980s, have limitations: to enter data, users have to operate a keyboard or a so-called mouse pointing device. Some potential users find operating them difficult or intimidating. As a result, to attract hesitant computer users, International Business Machines Corp.
(IBM) of Armonk, N.Y., announced on April 16 that in the summer it will start marketing a portable computer that is controlled with an electronic pen. The new computer, called a Thinkpad, can interpret a user’s printing and respond to it in the same way that conventional computers act on keyboard or mouse signals. With Thinkpad, IBM will join a small but rapidly growing number of hardware manufacturers and software developers who are betting that pen-based computers will capture the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of many more computer users. According to some industry analysts, sales of pen-operated computers could reach $3 billion a year by 1995.
Advocates of the new systems base their projections on the simplicity of pen-operated computers. “Pen systems will open up a whole new market for computers,” said analyst Michael O’Neil of Toronto-based IDC Canada Ltd., which tracks the information technology industry. Pen-based computers were designed with so-called mobile professionals in mind— people including salesmen or insurance adjustors who spend most of their time out of the office.
For them, a single pen-operated computer can replace paper forms, pencils, pens, pocket calculators and clipboards. For one thing, taking a sales order becomes a simple matter of touching the computer pen to the appropriate box of an electronic order form and, with the help of a modem, transmitting the information to head office over telephone lines. Experts estimate that pen computers could be used for 95 per cent of business data that are not currently computerized.
Pen-operated technology is designed to allow users to print directly onto a computer as though they were scribbling on a notepad. Instead of pen and paper, the technology em-
ploys a cordless electronic stylus and a glass surface carrying an electromagnetic charge that can track the stylus’s movements. Words appear on the computer screen, either in the original form or in the selected typeface. Simple editing changes can also be carried out with the stylus: drawing a line through a word on the screen will delete it from a text. Users can execute more complex commands by touching
the stylus to an on-screen menu. “Pen computers take advantage of things people have learned to do without thinking, like putting pen to paper,” said Norman Francis, president of PenMagic Software Inc., a two-year-old Vancouver company that has developed software for the new computers. He added: “It is a more familiar, natural way to work.”
The 121/4-by-91/4-by-l%-inch Thinkpad, which will be available in the United States in July and later in Canada, marks an important departure for IBM. Until recently, all IBM PCs used operating systems, the basic software that co-ordinates the various functions of a computer, that were developed by Microsoft Corp. of Redmond, Wash. But as their corporate strategies have diverged, the former allies have become rivals. Instead of using Microsoft’s software for the Thinkpad, IBM’s new line of pen-operated computers uses the PenPoint operating system from GO Corp., a five-year-
old company based in Foster City, Calif.
In addition to IBM, 22 other hardware manufacturers have announced that they will make computers employing the PenPoint software, including Fremont, Calif.-based GRiD Systems Corp. and Korea’s Samsung Corp. All except IBM, however, have hedged their bets. Dayton, Ohio-based NCR Corp., for one, equips its new 3125 pen-based notepad computer, introduced last October, with either PenPoint or Microsoft operating systems.
Meanwhile, at least 40 software companies have developed almost 50 programs to run with PenPoint. “It’s relatively unusual in this industry to have that level of support this early on,” said GO chairman Jerrold Kaplan. “It means we have a lot of momentum.” Vancouver’s PenMagic, for one, has introduced Numero, a software program for financial work. Among its wide range of capabilities, Numero lets the user, with a few strokes of the pen, automatically revise all groups of related
figures on different pages, including graphs and charts, by updating just one set of numbers.
So far, the technology for pen-operated computers is still in the early stage. The equipment is relatively heavy (Thinkpad weighs more than five pounds) and costs up to $4,000. But industry experts say that smaller models the size of a steno pad and weighing only about a pound should be available for less than $1,000 within a year. As well, Thinkpad and other penoperated computers currently can recognize only printing. It will probably be several years before computers are able to recognize cursive handwriting as well. Even so, the easy-to-use new computers have taken some of the remaining mystery out of the technology. The day when people will leave their house with their computer as surely as they take their wallet is drawing nearer.
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