Google Goes Back to the Future with Handwrite - Give a Tip of the Hat to Apple Newton

By Peter Bernstein August 07, 2012

For those of us of a certain vintage, we had or were envious of people who were owners of the Apple Newton. This was Apple’s original foray into what was then known as the personal digital assistant (PDA) category. If you read the Steve Jobs biography you know that it was a source of friction between Steve and the then Apple CEO John Sculley. I will go into detail of the history of Newton except to say development on it started way back in 1987. It was released in 1993 and became history in 1998. It was capable of things we now take for granted such as notes, calendar, address book, email, etc. But, it did not provide voice communications which ultimately was a major contributor to its short shelf life as things like the Blackberry hit the market and people released they did not need to carry two devices.

However, one of the things Newton did, along with the marketing boost from Sculley (who poured an estimated $100 million into the program when that was an amazing bet on anything) which imprinted the PDA as a hot category, was to extend the popularity of “pen computing.” 

Again for those not familiar with the history of tech jargon, this was a capability where a plastic stylus (aka “pen”) was used to interact with a device’s graphical user interface (GUI) for activating apps and for inputting handwriting. Newton contained a somewhat clumsy and often inaccurate handwriting recognition capability. The function was to allow users to write rather than type, or tap on an occasionally less than sensitive virtual keyboard. Recognition got better the more it was used, and before I ditched my Newton it was my favored way of inputting text to the device.    

This is all by way of introduction to an item that recently appeared on the Google official blog, Make your mark on Google with Handwrite for Mobile and Tablet Search.  As the blog notes, Google let’s us input queries via voice as well as typing, gives suggestions to complete queries even before we finish entering everything and allows searching by image. And, now we can search by turning our Android smartphones and tablets into state-of-the-art pen computers only this time it is your fingers that do the walking instead of those styli which I had to keep in abundant supply since the cradle on the Newton was not real good at keeping them secure.  

BTW. Please excuse the digression, but there is more than a bit of irony here in that what certainly is an irony, Motorola manufactured the first Newtons for Apple, and then offered their own competing PDAs that ran the Newton OS.  

The blog goes through the details, and the video provided below is extremely helpful. 

I can tell you that it is easy to set up, easy to use and so far marginally better for me in most cases than fat fingering the virtual keyboard on my smartphone, although it is taking a bit of usage to the capability to adapt to my chicken scratch. 

Is this a Sari killer? Hardly. In fact, tablet users may find this more of a nuisance than convenience since the form factor means that inputting is not that much of a hassle. However, for smaller form factors this might be the way to go because it is faster than voice and not as frustrating, once you get the hang of it, as typing. Try it you may like it, especially for those whose digits are adept.

Edited by Amanda Ciccatelli
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