By Jeff Green If there's one thing about the Palm-style handheld computers that people grouse about the most, it's text entry. If you use your handheld regularly, chances are you're pretty comfortable with most of the letters and can even enter characters fast enough to take a simple message on a phone call. But unless you're spending way too much time with your handheld, you're still able to scribble notes on a piece of paper faster than you can enter them into a Palm.
It does take practice. Palm OS handhelds use a text-entry system called Graffiti. Many of the letters are similar to the pen strokes you make to write regular letters. But other characters are specialized to ease identification by the computer. In most cases, it's surprisingly accurate. The Palm OS even features a game designed to let you practice this writing. The letters start to slowly fall toward the bottom of the screen. They go away after you write them out. The farther you get in the game, the faster letters fall. But I can write a "y" several times sometimes before I get it correct. So while it's pretty good, if my PC keyboard messed up as often as I do with Graffiti, I think I would toss it in the trash.
KEYBOARDS TO THE RESCUE. But don't do that. The Palm computer is too useful in other respects to pitch it over a few garbled letters. Instead, a secondary market is growing for both hardware and software alternatives for quicker note taking. The most obvious accessory is a snap-on keyboard offered by Palm (costing an extra $99.) GoType makes a nonfolding keyboard, which retails for around $70. In both cases, you just type away, like you were working on a desktop, although the keyboard and Palm are half the size of a laptop, if not even smaller.
The Palm OS does come with its own alternative for taking notes faster. You can tap a little button in the writing area and a small keyboard pops up in the bottom of the main display screen. You can type out the memo with your stylus (that's the pencil-like device that comes with most handhelds) on this keyboard, which has the same, traditional QWERTY format we're all familiar with. But with that keyboard up, it blocks half the display area and can be cumbersome.
Enter a new alternative -- onboard keyboards. I've been playing around with a program called FitalyStamp ($35) from Textware Solutions. This is an add-on program that overlays its own text-entry system on all Palm OS devices. It uses a unique keyboard design: You affix a removable overlay onto the Graffiti area of the Palm and it becomes a replacement, onboard keyboard.
The name Fitaly comes from the second line of keys on the five-line keyboard overlay, designed so that the most commonly used letters are one or two squares from the center of the overlay. The folks at Textware claim you can type 50 words a minute with your stylus once you get comfortable with the layout. I didn't get that fast, but I did find it much more precise than Graffiti -- while keeping the display area full size. Fitaly does make it easier to find the special characters that I'm always forgetting. And the program isn't the only game in town.
NOT PERFECT. QuickType is a freeware program that does pretty much the same thing and even allows the user to create customized keyboard overlays. Octave from e-acute ($20) has a similar, alternative overlay system. TextPlus ($19.95) from SmartCell Technology adds enhancements to the traditional Palm pop-up keyboard, including the ability to complete common words and phrases from a pop-up menu. I haven't tried any of these programs, but they're worth investigating.
Oh, I'll probably switch back to regular old Graffiti after I play with Fitaly a while. But the experiment does highlight a big opportunity out there for all these handheld devices -- from Palms to cell phones. They all need an easy-to-use data-entry interface. I don't know if Fitaly is necessarily the future. But it also won't be based, I'm pretty sure, on the obsolete typewriter format. What's more, operating my Palm with voice commands won't give the me the privacy I need. Until someone comes up with a surefire data-entry system -- or until they wire it right into our brains -- I guess we'll have to make do. Green , BusinessWeek correspondent based in Detroit, is crazy about handhelds. Follow his perspectives on Palm-based technologies, only on BW Online