The Writing in Your Hand

by Reads (7,769)

One of the long-standing differences among PDAs and other types of mobile computers has been the way in which information has been entered into the device.

There are keyboards, thumbboards, predictive-text programs, handwriting recognition formats, and –somewhere off in the future — voice input.

And these differences are often not so much personal preferences as so many times a cultural one.

For example, I have a friend who is from Europe and absolutely swears by T9 input. He will not purchase a QWERTY phone and thinks they are the equivalent of a really bad set of training wheels.

On the other hand, I cannot stand T9 and would prefer to have a built-in keyboard (as Palm’s Treo series does) in order to get text into my device.

But instead of going on and on about cultural differences, let’s take a look at each one’s strengths and weaknesses, and what these current methods point to for our soon-to-come future.

Handwriting Recognition

Probably the most basic and most reviled of input methods for any mobile device is handwriting recognition.

From systems that can take your natural handwriting (Newton, Calligrapher on the Windows Mobile platform) to systems where you have to learn a short-hand language (Graffiti 1 and 2 on the Palm OS, Jot, Block Recognizer on Windows Mobile), handwriting recognition has seen its share of good times and bad.

One of the major strengths of handwriting recognition, no matter which form you are using, is the fact that it is a product of your handwriting, and so it brings a level of personality to one’s writing.

Systems such as Graffiti 1 have been lauded for being extremely easy to master, and one could easily attain 30-words-per-minute in writing.

I have to agree, as I used to take my class notes on a Palm IIIxe and a m515 using just Graffiti 1, and had no problem keeping up with the professors, even writing well enough to start a few papers while also writing notes.

Unfortunately, the weaknesses of handwriting recognition also come from its strengths. It is a learned system, and — except in those cases where you really are not concerned about grammatical accuracy — going back and editing something that captured your handwriting can be a lesson in editing frustration.

This is probably why many devices now have gone to predictive text and keyboard/keypad entry systems, as they are less error prone, and given a shorter amount of time are much faster than handwriting.

Predictive Text Entry

Predictive text entry is by no means a new feature of input; many people are familiar with the Auto Complete function that word processors have had for some time.

Where predictive text comes in handy, though, is on phones where you cannot fit a full QWERTY keyboard, or where you don’t have a touchscreen with which you can use handwriting recognition.

Predictive text is much larger in Europe and Asia than in the U.S., as phones there are smaller and the ability to knock out text messages as fast as possible makes for large and powerful competition dictionaries.

The main strengths of predictive text entry is the ease of use: you type a letter and get a few words suggested, type another letter and the list thins out, type another letter and usually are right at the word that you wanted. The most common form of predictive text entry today is used on mobile phones and is called T9 input.

However, a weakness of predictive text is not in the typing of the text, but how well learned the dictionary is that is being referenced. For many users, when they first get a phone and then want to use a system such as T9, they must spend time with the system so that it “learns” what words the user is most likely to use. Depending on a person’s personal vocabulary, this could be a long process.


Keyboards/thumbboards are the most recognizable text entry point. And with many of the new smartphones announced and released this year, one would probably have to assume that thumbboards will probably be the dominant form of text entry for communicator-style devices for times to come.

There are two main groups: thumbboards (type usually by using your thumbs or tips of your finger) and keyboards (normally externally connected and utilize the full hand in order to type).

Strengths of the keyboard/thumbboard methods of text entry are familiarity (most are used to the layout as it resemble a full computer/laptop keyboard), and accessibility (as many times key combinations are used for caps, complex symbols, etc.).

Weaknesses of the keyboard/thumbboard arrangement are again an issue of hardware and not the method itself. These devices tend to be wider/larger than non-keyboard devices. And to the opinion of many, are not at all as stylish.

But The Future Speaks Differently

While the above are the most common (and still widely used) methods of text entry, the push for many years now has been to get devices and systems to the point where the user’s voice can control a device, make a phone call, or write a small note. While the software is surely here to do so, the quality of service for voice applications still leaves a lot to be desired, and many who have that option prefer to just use it for simple tasks of calling up an application or phoning a contact.

That is not to say that something cannot come out of the blue and turn the world of text input on its head. As we have seen with the iPod, all it takes is a simple design and function to get people to think differently about the data they are carrying (the click wheel made holding mounds of music an easy task to manage and play).

So while the writing is not yet on the wall for handwriting recognition, predictive text, keyboards/thumbboards, or voice, we have to think that someone will develop something really simple that will help us get more of our ideas in digital form so they can be shared with more and more people.




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