Bad Handwriting and the Tablet PC

by Derrick Story

Even as a kid I hated handwriting. It was the only subject in which I received a "D." Teachers used to tease me that I should become a doctor because my script was so illegible. I preferred to "print" my letters instead. It looked much neater to me, but it did take longer. Letting me use a typewriter was the real answer, but that wasn't allowed in the fourth grade.

These days I can barely complete a grocery list without my hand cramping up. In my mind this demonstrates what an unnatural act pen writing is because I can type all day without a problem. Occasionally, I use my Palm stylus to input a new address or jot a quick note. It's fine for odds and ends like that. But once when I tried to take class notes at a seminar with my PDA, I gave up in agony after only 20 minutes.

I realize that these examples are different situations than using a Tablet PC. But for me, the result would eventually be the same. Sooner or later I'd screw up because I scribbled some notation wrong. Ironic that Tablet PCs are being touted for healthcare. Don't doctors have the worse handwriting of all?

To be honest, I don't want a Tablet PC anymore than I want a headache. I could be totally "out to lunch" here and underestimating the "next big thing." But what I really think is that Steve Jobs was correct when he said, "It turns out people want keyboards."

I'm not wishing ill on Tablet PCs. But unless there's a potential for them to flourish outside of niche markets such as healthcare, I'd just as soon Apple not waste its time on them.

I'm much more interested in the evolution of smart phones, the iPod, wearable computers, and yes, the laptop. If I want to draw a picture on my computer, I'll buy a Wacom tablet for $99. But even then, chances are that my sketch of the neighbor's dog will look more like a cow, or an antelope or something different all together.


2003-09-29 07:57:32
Doctors' handwriting
Here's the thing: handwriting recognition works fine as long as your handwriting is consistent. It doesn't have to be legible.

My handwriting is easy to read for people, but computers tend to deal badly with it because I can't seem to form a letter the same way twice.

People who write a lot, like doctors, tend to develop illegible but very consistent handwriting, so recognition works well.

These are the weird facts you learn when you spend several years developing software for Newtons. :)

2003-09-29 08:33:22
RE: Doctors' handwriting
Well, the whole doctor thing is really just for fun :) But I am serious when I say that I want to type, not write, information into my computer.

To some degree I think the Newton illustrated this point. (I like the Newton, but I like typing better.) And even cutting edge handheld companies such as Handspring are moving away from stylus input and more toward built in keyboards.

2003-09-29 09:13:14
I want a hanwriting-recognition Mathematica or Latex-type word processor. Entering equations into a computer or drawing mathematical figures is one of the biggest banes of my existence. Of course Tablet PC's don't do this.... but wouldn't a little hand calculator with handwriting recognition and Mathematica type capabilities be just plain awesome :)
Jonathan Gennick
2003-09-29 10:42:22
It's not the handwriting that I want...
I don't care so much about the handwriting, but there are plenty of times when I'm editing photos that it'd be real nice to be able to select some part of the image by drawing directly on the screen with a stylus rather than by moving my mouse around. There are also times it'd be nice to draw using a stylus. But so far, this hasn't been high enough on my list of priorities to influence which model notebook I buy.
2003-09-29 14:03:41
I want a tablet for logging designing
Now i produce big piles of papers with all kinds of sketches: diagrams, etc.
Then files with added info, maybe my voice.
And of course tools will figure out what i mean and clean it up nicely: Corel Grafigo is a nice start.
2003-09-29 15:56:29
I'd love an Apple Tablet
I use my Tablet PC as a note taking device and never lose my notes anymore which is wonderful. So is editing a word doc with digital ink in Office 2003. I can only imagine how much more elegant and thoughtful an Apple implementation of this idea would be.
2003-09-29 16:15:58
RE: Doctors' handwriting
I thought they gave up on graffiti because Palm lost the lawsuit to...Xerox??

Personally I liked graffiti. It is easier than writing and didn't loose as many notes ;-)

2003-09-29 17:10:13
RE: I'd love an Apple Tablet
OK, so I have to ask you, because obviously you've scribbled more on a Tablet PC than I have: Why is it that you don't lose your notes anymore? And why do you take better notes with a stylus than with typing. I'm curious, and I think others would be interested too.

PS: Glad to see Tablet PC fans out there to keep the embers burning.

2003-09-29 17:13:02
I want a tablet for logging designing
What kind of set up do you have now? Are you using a Wacom tablet with your computer? Seems like you have an interesting workflow going here.
2003-09-29 17:14:16
It's not the handwriting that I want...
But you can do that with a Wacom tablet for $99, can't you?
2003-09-29 17:15:48
Re: Math
Wow, this would be a cool device. Does anyone know of the existence of such a thing?
2003-09-29 17:19:06
RE: Doctors' handwriting
Graffiti *might* be easier than writing. but easier than typing? Really? I'm pretty decent at Graffiti (Visor Platinum with VisorPhone is my PDA), and I feel like I'm pecking away forever before I complete a sentence.
2003-09-29 19:54:57
It's not the handwriting that I want...
Wacom's $99 tablet is hardly direct manipulation. You can use it for tracing over a printed piece, which is nice, to an extent. The way it senses pressure is very nice. However, the digitizer surface represents the entire screen area, not just the drawable area (at least in the case of what I have demo-ed). Essentially it is the world's slimmest, expensive, non-accelerated mouse. At least with a mouse I can move further when I move it more quickly and slow waay down when I move it slowly. Wacom's much more expensive Cintiq is closer to a Tablet PC, in that you can directly touch (virtually) what is happening on the screen. Wacom apparently OEMs their tech to Tablet PC makers. I'm not certain why the Cintiq is more expensive than some complete Tablet PCs. Maybe it would make sense to just buy a cheap Tablet PC for the screen/digitizer combo...
2003-09-30 07:53:02
Be careful in this litigious society...
because if you draw a dog that looks like a cow, you might get sued by Apple for stealing Clarus, the dog-cow that says, "Moof!"


2003-09-30 08:55:47
It's not the handwriting that I want...
I have Wacom's $99 tablet, and I agree it would certainly be a waste if you were just using it as a mouse replacement or to select areas. Where the Wacom really shines is in Painter or Photoshop doing actual drawing with the pen sensitivity tied to the brushes. It really allows you to create expressive brush strokes (or lines) that are just impossible with a mouse. For drawing, the non-acceleration is essential.

For a bit of fun, try to imagine using a real pencil that auto-accelerated as you were trying to make a drawing! It would completely make a mess of things! :)

It's really a digital art tool and not a mouse replacement. Although it can function as a mouse, using it like that just drives me crazy. I keep both the mouse and tablet hooked up and use them each for the tasks that they are best at. :)

2003-09-30 09:08:30
RE: I'd love an Apple Tablet
I'm a college engineering student who probably could not live without my tablet pc. I would never dream of taking math, physics, or engineering notes by typing them on a laptop. The multitude of diagrams, tables, charts that I just draw would take too much time using a mouse and keyboard. The professor would have moved on by then! And the organization that OneNote provides is a boon to someone unorganized like myself.
2003-09-30 10:06:32
I've used all of the variations
Part of my job is to keep up on new technologies, and I'm always looking for an edge to keep my organized. I have stacks of notepads around with notes from meetings that have my scrawls that pass for handwriting, and lots of diagrams (I used to be a chemistry professor, so drawing is natural to me). In fact, I used to use my Newton 2100 for writing my lectures...I could type the text and then hand draw chemical structures and math equations. I rue the day that product was "Steve'd", but that's for another rant.

I love real keyboards, but the small keyboards that come with PDAs are a total joke. Useless to me. I much prefer a stylus. I can type very fast with a real keyboard, so for text input that is king. However even a 12"G4 laptop is still a big thing to drag everywhere, and typing on a laptop in a meeting is a I need to be able to diagram.

I have been using Palms for many years, and am comfortable with grafitti. But beyond short notes, it is NOT usefull for real documentation of meetings. The screen is too small, and the input is too slow. Sadly, I find the new HP Pocket PC devices to be pretty damn good. Better screen, and the handwriting recognition is rather I can write anywhere on the screen rather than being limited to a silkscreened area (and yes, I've used write anywhere on the new palms and decuma on the clies...the both are kludges imho).

So a tablepc should be perfect for me, right? Even though I despise MS and have been on Macs since '85. Well, I've got a Motion Computing tablet and I can say that it isn't all that. In fact, the OS implementation is WORSE than PocketPC. Because of the reality of moving from a small screen (where everything can be "hot") to a larger screen (where inadvertant touches cause problems so you use a special stylus) causes myriad issues. Try using the web browser on one...unless you have all the sittes you want bookmarked, you'll have no fun writing or peck typing site addresses in. It has boiled down to the fact that it really is only good for using the journal to take notes like a regular note pad. And when you're doing that, you don't want to have the handwriting recognition, because you always have to make sure you got the right thing, then you lose the train of thought.

I think the way to do things is to use real paper, then scan them in. Associate key words with the scan and file them. For meetings, I want to start doing audio recording and snap still photos of white boards (yes, I know that "collaborative" white boards exist, but they are still expensive, a hassle, and often times the Mac software is either non existent or lags behind the windows version).

I'm into lowest common denominator these days...simple solutions that gather as much information as possible to document meetings and other events. And a tablet doesn't do it for me. Now if Apple made one...smaller than the existing ones but bigger than a PDA so you've got enough screen space to do decent drawings, and with a separate keyboard for typing long text passages. Oh wait a minute....that sounds like a Newton 2100...

2003-09-30 10:37:22
RE: I'd love an Apple Tablet
Let me start off by admitting that I organize poorly and have never taken to note taking with a keyboard. Tools like sticky brain have never grabbed me. I tend to use whatever is handy to write notes on, and then lose the notes. Being non-organized, I could never keep things in any coherent order within the paper notebook anyway.

So I got a Motion tablet. For whatever reason, using it as both a laptop and a tablet has been intuitive for me. I open a note or journal, start writing and save it. It is easy. And when you need to draw a network diagram or something like that, it is great. So is the ability to switch ink colors and pen sizes.

I do not rely on the writing to text translation very often. I can recognize my handwriting just fine in the notes. I could care less if someone else really needs to read it. Now it would be nice if I could write anywhere in the screen and have the text translated well into whatever program I was using. Typing URLs and commands in a shell prompt come to mind.

2003-09-30 11:07:55
RE: I've used all of the variations
Thanks for taking the time to delineate all the options you've tried. I found it very interesting. It's funny to me, that so often, we keep coming back to paper one way or another. I guess we could say that paper was the original "next big thing."
2003-09-30 13:50:05
RE: I'd love an Apple Tablet
I'm glad you followed up with my question because you confirmed what I suspected. These different types of tools -- Tablet PCs, laptops, PDAs -- appeal differently to different people. It depends on how you're wired, right?

That's why I love these types of conversations. When each of us is contemplating what type of tool to buy, it really helps to read why others have made the choices they have. The Tablet PC will probably never do it for me, and the laptop alone will probably never do it for you. But the fact that people can read *why* is what's cool.

Much thanks!

2003-09-30 15:44:42
RE: Doctors' handwriting
The thing that makes graffiti unuseable is that you can't write a string of letters from left to right, so your hand has to go back to zero for each letter. There is something in my brain that synchronizes the speed of my thoughts with the speed of my handwriting. I had to learn a different approach whenever I began typing. I still think better when I'm writing things out though. The only problem is that I can't really stand my handwriting and I lose my notes. A Newton had helped me out with this problem, but that solution is long gone.
2003-09-30 16:20:37
I'd Love a TabMac
I would love to have a tablet Mac. Sketching via a mouse or even a Wacom tablet is too disjointed. Sketching onscreen is the only way to go.

Plus, I would use it to take notes. Unlike you, I became very proficient with the Palm and note taking in business meetings. However, the Palm is just too limited...I keep wishing for a super Newton and thus a tablet Mac.

All that said, I admit that I can get words out faster and more accurately using a keyboard. So I guess my dream machine would be a convertable laptop. One that is a laptop until I spin the screen around and fold it against the keyboard to use as a tablet. I find uses for both devices very, very often.

As you said in a response to an earlier poster, we are all wired differently. That is why, even with just paper, there are different types of pens and pencils. Lined and unlined paper. Small and large sizes. I think you get the picture.

Will the tablet or convertible Mac take over the world? I doubt it. But I do believe that there is a large enough market to Apple to make one...provided they keep their pricing in line with the market and their top-end position in that market.

2003-10-01 01:59:38
An iTablet could work for Apple
Reading the discussion so far, it appears to me that Apple could successfully apply the iPod philosophy to an iTablet. The idea would be not to try to accomplish things with a stylus where a keyboard would be the better choice. So the first thing would be to discover at which tasks an iTablet could excel and then concentrate on those tasks. It would be a big mistake to perceive an iTablet as a portable without a keyboard. While the iPod plays music, an iTablet would display textual and graphical content. It could be a device for reading and studying. The stylus could be used to mark text etc. iSync would wirelessly synchronize whatever would be meaningful to an iTablet. We could show our digital photos and movies to everyone everywhere. And you don't need a keyboard to edit photos. Etc. Etc.

It would be important to get the form factor right and to conceive a special purpose device (such as the iPod is) and not a constrained all purpose computer (this contradiction is probably what Jobs has in mind).

2003-10-07 13:10:08
Re: Math
2003-11-12 12:03:58
I agree that "Tekking" (think phonetic here) math is a real pain and yet it's totally essential for scientists and engineers to publish text with complex mathematical symbols. This seems like the killer app of the tablet PC, the ability to take complex notation and easily digitize the input (this includes of course circuit diagrams, flow charts, etc) in a more direct fashion than typing out complex commands to do what would take a few simple penstrokes on paper(think definite integrals here). Of course with that said, and the TPC a microsoft product, so it shouldn't be surprising that there is not a single product out there I can find to accomplish this task (20-min google search) including the link below (they're in the process of developing a product). Why would microsoft actually create something that works right the first time? After all, those patch programmers need jobs too!

I have a convertible tablet PC and I love the thing for taking notes in class because physics lectures are symbol intesive. You might argue that for 3 orders of magnitude less moolah a legal pad gets more bang for the buck, but the nice thing about the tablet PC is the post note taking cleanup that can be done. Professors make a lot of mistakes on the board and it's unbelievably convinient to rearrange notes after the fact with without having to recopy them. It's simple to add color to clean up a busy graph and it's a snap to add the extra space needed to transform a 2 line hodge-podge of greek letters (I mean a derivation) into something a non-PhD can follow. Unlike regular note taking where the keyboard wins (for those of us that learned to type at least) hands down, I'm not aware of anyone who can tap out LaTeX fast enough to keep up with a lecture. Maybe people like that exist, but I'm glad I don't know 'em!

2003-11-13 09:35:48
Re: Math
also check out this japanese site