A Clipboard With A Memory

The CrossPad stores pages of handwritten notes--and allows keyword searches

For far too long, computers have forced human beings to do things their way. Humans have been communicating through speech since the origin of the species and by handwriting for thousands of years. Typing and mouse clicks, efficient though they may be, are unnatural newcomers.

The $399 CrossPad from penmaker A.T. Cross is a sign that computers may be starting to do things our way. It's a sort of electronic clipboard; slip in a pad, pick up the special pen supplied with the device, and you can store up to 50 handwritten pages in the CrossPad's memory. Connect the clipboard to the serial port on a Windows 95 PC, and a facsimile of the handwritten pages is zapped into the PC.

You could accomplish the same thing just by running your written pages through a scanner. But the CrossPad, developed in conjunction with IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., is more convenient and comes with some very clever IBM software.

INDEXED COPIES. If you tap a button on the CrossPad and then circle a word or phrase on your sheet of paper, it will be converted to text and recognized as a keyword when you copy the writing to your PC. After correcting the software's translation of your handwriting, if necessary, you can search your saved notes for the reference. You can also add keywords to pages once they have been loaded into the computer. This makes it simple to store indexed, searchable copies of handwritten documents on your computer.

The IBM research team, headed by Krishna S. Nathan, is making only minimal claims for the CrossPad's ability to recognize handwriting. They want to avoid the ridicule heaped on Apple Computer's now-defunct Newton when it failed to come close to its early promise of handwriting recognition. But the developers may be selling their work short. The CrossPad can convert any selected block of writing to computer text. After investing 45 minutes or so in training the device to read my scrawl, it did a far from perfect, but still creditable, job if I wrote carefully. I certainly could fix the errors a lot faster than I could type in all the text, a reasonable measure of success.

Still, I think of the CrossPad mainly as a very interesting first effort. The clipboard is bulky and heavy, although researchers hope to design a version that is no thicker, and not much heavier, than a conventional clipboard. You have to click a button when you move to a new sheet of paper, or your writing gets all jumbled. That's an inconvenience until you get used to it. And when you choose to recognize handwriting, the results show up only in IBM's Ink Manager program; to get the text into a word processor or other application, you have to cut and paste.

Oddly, given Cross's expertise, the pen could stand some work. The CrossPad uses radio signals from the pen to record data--that's how you can write through a whole pad of paper--so the pen contains a transmitter powered by an AAAA battery. That doesn't leave much room for ink, so Cross uses a mini ballpoint refill good for roughly 50 sheets. Sets of five refills are stored neatly inside the pad. But I'm not a fan of ballpoints and would like a rollerball or ceramic-tip alternative. Many buyers might prefer something lighter than the 1.5-ounce model. And don't lose that pen. The first replacement costs $59 and subsequent ones $89.

Improvements--and lower prices--will come in time. In the meantime, the CrossPad is an important sign of things to come, as computer scientists make rapid progress on what they call "alternative interfaces" such as speech and handwriting.

At high-tech meetings, it's not unusual to see everyone around a conference table tapping away on his or her own laptop computer. But in most settings, such behavior is thought of as somewhere between weird and rude. In Europe and Asia, it's generally regarded as completely unacceptable. And the use of laptops is flatly prohibited in some places, such as courtrooms.

Furthermore, computer keyboards aren't great for note-taking. It's difficult or impossible to type diagrams, flow charts, graphs, or equations into a computer. Software also will make it possible to use the CrossPad to fill in printed forms, an approach that many health-care workers and others who spend much of their working lives filling in forms may find simpler and more natural than a laptop or handheld computer.

Keyboards and mice won't disappear anytime soon, and maybe never. But it's good to see that computers are starting to accommodate human forms of communication.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.