The Writing on the Wall

Penmanship, From Palmer to Palm Pilot

Palmer was not the only one who understood the benefits of standardization—it is the basis of the proprietary handwriting recognition system, called Graffiti, that is built into the Palm Pilot personal digital assistant. Palm devices are usually mentioned in the same breath with e-mail by doomsayers predicting the end of handwriting as we know it, but in fact, Palm's technology is intimately connected to handwriting. In order to write an appointment or phone number into a Palm, you use a stylus to write each letter one at a time. The Graffiti alphabet is a further simplification of the standard printed alphabet—each letter, except for X, must be formed with a single stroke. An A, for example, is just an upside-down V. Despite forcing its users to learn this new alphabet, Palm has had no trouble attracting followers—more than 4 million people already own the devices. Other handheld organizers, such as the Pocket PC devices built on a Microsoft operating system, use a handwriting recognition software called Jot, developed by Communications Intelligence Corp. Jot similarly requires a standardized alphabet, although it includes several versions of some letters.

Unlike the Palmer standardization, which was driven by a desire for speed, Palm's alphabet is a reflection of the limits of the technology. Today's devices do not have the computing power to recognize more than one distinct character at a time. "The software to do that would be much more complex, and it would increase the cost, size, and weight of the product," says Jim Cortese, a spokesman for Palm. The future, however, will see less standardization, not more. Eventually, Palm devices will be able to recognize the handwriting of their individual owners. "Handwriting recognition will be very intelligent," Cortese says. It seems, then, that the impulse to write will persist through this technology, just as it did through the introduction of the printing press, telegraph, typewriter, and personal computer—all of which prompted rounds of hand-wringing over handwriting. Whether the words are written in walnut juice ink or liquid crystal display, "what's important remains the same," says Ritter of the NEA. "You have to be able to read what's written."

Check out the other stories in the Winter 2001 Voice Education Supplement.

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