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Will digits replace the power of the pen?

When did our own digits become detriments to our technological progress? Actually, I can only speak for myself in this.
Image:  Apple iPhone
The iPhone was designed to make the most of finger touches, but this writer still misses her stylus at times. Mike Segar / Reuters file

When did our own digits become detriments to our technological progress? Actually, I can only speak for myself in this.

I was supposed to get an iPhone for Christmas. Had drooled and fantasized about it, even. But I text and e-mail frequently from my Blackberry, and having tried this out at the Apple Store on the iPhone, I began to have my doubts. You can’t use a stylus, even if you wanted to. It’s supposed to make the most of finger touches.

I have small hands. E.T.-like fingers, one friend told me once. (For the record, I have nothing against E.T.) But even then, my fingers are not accurate enough to tap out a text with any kind of speed or accuracy. But perhaps it’s something you get used to, like anything. The iPhone also starts to learn what you’re typing, so it catches on quick.

Typing for a living — thanks for that high school class that taught me early how to do it right — means I type fast, so the idea of pecking at an on-screen keyboard is not an option. For me and for other folks, the tap, tap, tap of keys can be reassuring. The QWERTY keyboard and I are reluctant friends, but I’ve gotten used to it.

It’s been ages since I’ve used a PDA, having converted my Blackberry into the center of my organized life, such as it is.

A must-have accessory
I used to have a Palm Pilot — several, in fact. I would get my mother’s hand-me-downs and once, I rebelled by getting a Handspring instead. I loved PDAs. But I was always losing my stylus.

Despite knowing there was a holder for the damn thing, I was always misplacing this must-have accessory.

Do you remember when the stylus had its own style?

When it was hot, there was a stylus for every occasion. There were your standard styluses but also gold ones, silver, etc. — the fancier, the better. It was like any accessory that gets glamorized and commodified. It became a sign of the commercialism of the times.

As we begin 2008, I couldn’t help but look back at this one-time must have. It’s still a must-have for professionals who swear by the Palm, the Handspring and all of their offspring. It’s still essential for artists who use tablets and who transfer their work to a myriad of programs. It’s not going to go out of existence anytime soon. But is it on its way?

“Pen computing was born in the late ’80s with in the introduction of the GRiDPad by GRiD Systems of Fremont, Calif. At that time it was targeted at vertical applications such as route delivery, health care, etc. Apple introduced the Newton in the mid-’90s, targeting consumers. It failed but was followed by the Palm Pilot, which was the first successful consumer pen computer,” said Ken Dulaney, an analyst with Gartner Research. “Handwriting showed much promise in the devices. However, handwriting recognition never matured, and with the introduction of the Blackberry, using a keyboard to target what was surely the most successful consumer application — email —  the pen began to fade. Pen computing remains strong in vertical applications because it gives users a more precise way of pointing to objects on the screen. Users in this category often use gloves or are not familiar with these types of devices.”

The power of the pen
So even now, the power of the pen is strong, even if you don’t see it as much as you used to. It’s now a staple at checkout counters and department store cashiers. But will devices like the iPhone signal the demise of the stylus?

“The problem with the iPhone is that when you type characters, the likelihood that you miss the key is high,” Dulaney said. “I find that the iPhone is very difficult to use in the car when you cannot look at how your finger matches up against the key. My experience is that the error rate is higher than with a keyboard. But it’s good enough now that the pen is fading, but probably won’t impact the keyboard that much. So don't expect touch to take over on everything.”

Nowadays, those who carry such devices are torn between wanting all-in-one smartphones and carrying two devices, their cell phone and their PDA. In that camp, styluses still rule. But even for those who carry Treos, styluses don’t leave their cradle as often as you might think. Those who have mastered one-handed inputting don’t look back.

But let's not forget that the people who brought us the stylus as the must-have accessory also helped usher in the touch screen's mainstream popularity years ago.

"Palm has been implementing touch screen technology for years, well before the iPhone or similar phones on the market," said Palm spokeswoman Dolleen Casey. "The stylus is an accompaniment to the touch screen for those who still like to have/use it."

I admit, I miss my stylus at times. It helped cut and paste, I mastered graffiti — at least well enough to use it instead of tapping out on the virtual keyboard — and it was a steady companion. Well, it and four of its compadres, since I was always losing them. It won’t be obsolete for awhile, I suppose, but with finger touch becoming more of the norm — airline check-in counters, for instance — it’s only a matter of time before this once must-have becomes an exhibition for the 20th century museum.

It’s funny, actually, how technology has come back to our own bodies as a means of inputting rather than depending on extraneous accessories. We’ll see if it takes. I have a feeling it will, so I’m saving my stylus to show my kids what we used to use. That’s if I can find it.