Will handwriting input ever be important again?
Recently I’ve using my old tablet PC for sketching out UI designs, and I am constantly reminded how bad the handwriting recognition is on Windows XP Tablet Edition. There are several input methods ranging from the annoying ‘write between the marks’ monospace and a more natural freehand method. However, the system constantly mistakes letters for numbers and vice versa, and using the freehand system, it is much more difficult to correct mistakes. This gets to be so annoying that I end up using the onscreen keyboard and just use the stylus to tap out what I want to enter. I found myself thinking ‘it would be great if I could somehow tell it that I am writing a number instead of a letter’. But wait, I had a device oh, six or seven years ago that had no problems with this. The Palm Pilot.
So the other day, I dug out my old Sony Clie. The Clie is a PlamOS device, featuring the same Graffiti handwriting recognition system that all Palm devices used to have. There is a dedicated space at the bottom of the touch area for handwriting input. The space is divided into two sections, one for letters and one for numbers. If you wanted to make a capital letter, you wrote in the center, crossing into both halves. For the small concession of having to be explicit about what you wanted it to do, you were rewarded with a very small error rate. However, this is all notably absent from Palm’s later devices – the Treo and the Pre.
Taking these two things, namely the inadequacy of handwriting recognition in Windows Tablet Edition and the lack of Palm’s inclusion of any sort of handwriting recognition in their devices, one wonders where handwriting recognition as an input method is going.
Since mobile devices are increasingly doing away with the stylus, it seems unlikely that things will move toward handwriting recognition again. Furthermore, if tablet devices adopt a touch interface rather than a stylus interface, I don’t see how handwriting recognition will survive on the platform. Even if the stylus remains, users may prefer using the touch interface primarily, making switching to the stylus a chore.
I think that handwriting recognition as it existed in the days of Graffiti and even as it exists now on tablet PCs is dead/fading, if for no other reason than I see the stylus losing the war of the input devices to touch screens. The stylus is unwieldy and inconvenient at best (how do you manage a tablet pc with one hand and the stylus in the other?), and dorky at worst (ever see a guy in a bar scribbling away at their Treo with the stylus?). Furthermore, I see innovations on the software side such as Swype picking up where Graffiti left off, offering fast and intuitive text input for touch devices.