The pen, if you believe the soothsayers, is mightier than the keyboard. Virtually all of the big makers of personal computers are racing to develop a new generation of lightweight portable computers that can be operated by writing on a screen or tablet with a penlike stylus.
Pen-based computing, the analysts say, will revolutionize the industry and attract millions of new computer users.
These new users would include factory and warehouse workers, police officers, doctors and nurses, office managers, truck drivers, traveling sales representatives, waiters and waitresses and many others who must work on their feet.
The soothsayers may be right, but it will be late this year before the first of the new generation of pen-based computers shows up and perhaps several years before the reality of pen-based computing catches up with the perception.
The widely held perception is that the computers will be able to read handwriting, but the reality is that current systems are barely able to decipher neatly printed block letters and a handful of simple editing gestures.
The ability to read cursive writing is still in the laboratory stage. Also, I have a hard time reading my own handwriting and have little confidence that a computer can do better.
Even so, a lot of people are starting to plan for the day when keyboards and mice are not necessary input devices, an eventuality that seems like heaven to anyone who cannot type.
In fact, one such system already exists: the $2,370 Gridpad from the Grid Corp., a subsidiary of the Tandy Corp. Many outfits, including the armed forces in the Persian Gulf, are already using Gridpads for specialized tasks.
However, the Gridpad, in contrast to prototype machines described by the International Business Machines Corp., the NCR Corp. and Grid itself, the Gridpad is a relatively low-powered system.
The coming generation of pen-based computers will have more horsepower, more capabilities and higher cost, probably $5,000 or more. Much of the power will derive from the pen-based operating system.
At least two companies, the tiny Go Corp. of Foster City, Calif., and the giant Microsoft Corp. of Redmond, Wash., are developing operating system software for future pen-based devices.
And a variety of hardware companies, including IBM, are designing pen-driven computers that will run the software.
GO's software entry, which was unveiled last month, is called Penpoint. Microsoft's entry, called Pen Windows, is scheduled to be shown to software developers later thismonth.
GO's Penpoint is a fresh approach to operating systems, a clean break from DOS, Macintosh, OS/2, Windows and other familiar microcomputer operating systems.
There is a luxury in not being tied to the past, because there are no confining paradigms or expectations. (God created the world in seven days, the joke goes, because He did not have to deal with an installed base.)
The Macintosh and Windows operating systems use a desktop metaphor, in which documents and utilities are arranged around the screen just as documents, folders, filing cabinets and other objects are arranged on a person's desk.
GO's developers, in contrast, have devised a "notebook user interface" that resembles pages in a notebook, with index tabs and a contents page. The user operates the software by touching the pen to a page number or an index marker displayed on the computer screen.
Through a fancy and complex technology called object-orientation, which is increasingly used in advanced programs, the user can simply select a document and let the computer handle all the drudgery of figuring out which applications were involved in creating it and making sure they are available if needed.
Documents can be "embedded" in other documents, greatly increasing the amount of information in a given file and giving the user more power to manipulate it.
Penpoint also recognizes printed letters and numbers, upper and lower cases and some common editing marks.
Besides operating the software by tapping or gesturing with the pen, the user can print characters that will be entered and captured as computer text.
This is handy for jotting down little snippets of information, but not for writing a report, since the process is slow.
Microsoft's Pen Windows, unlike Penpoint, is closely tied to the existing software that Microsoft has already sold to millions of people. According to those who have seen it, Pen Windows is expected to work with any applications written for the next version of Windows, version 3.1.
As an extension to Windows, one can assume that with Pen Windows the pen will be used as a replacement for the mouse-pointing device, to pull down menus, click on boxes and change the size of working areas. It will also be able to recognize printed handwriting.
Microsoft clearly knows the value of getting in early on operating systems; it was a modest little company when it won the right to develop DOS for the fledgling IBM PC.
This time, however, IBM has thrown its support behind GO. IBM is licensing GO's software and said it would have a portable, tablet-like computer ready for Penpoint late this year.