Should the HP/Palm webOS Slate Use a Pen?

A brief story in The Examiner speculates that the upcoming HP/Palm webOS slate could include a digital pen (note: not a stylus) for handwriting and drawing. Some folks wonder whether if this would be a good idea, being concerned that including a pen would change the nature of the device. I would argue that, yes, it would, but in a good way: a pen, if properly executed, would dramatically improve content creation on a webOS slate while doing nothing to hamper content consumption.

Steve Jobs famously said, “It’s like we said on the iPad, if you see a stylus, they blew it.” Jobs was entirely correct, if a stylus is used for user interface (UI) control. However, he’s being either disingenuous or a bit ignorant if he’s talking about content creation, simply because a virtual keyboard on a larger device (say, anything with an 8” screen or larger) is a mediocre input method in many use cases. And, it’s a simple fact that capacitive touch isn’t terribly precise, and so the significantly more precise pen is far superior for handwriting and drawing on the screen.

Simply put, a pen (and the active digitizer technology behind it) should be entirely optional. A user who has no need for handwriting or drawing should be able to use the device without ever touching a pen. However, when precision is required, the pen could be available as a vastly superior alternative to touch alone.

Some examples of where a pen would be of significant benefit:

  1. Any time a user needs to take copious, free-form notes without pause. Students and salespeople, for example, often take notes for hours on end without stopping, and with the need to include drawings and diagrams and to easily highlight and connect notes as they go along. A keyboard, physical or virtual, is simply a poor substitute for a pen in these situations.
  2. Any time a user needs to take notes unobtrusively. The salesperson is a good example here. Imagine setting a slate on a desktop in front of a prospect and staring at the virtual keyboard while taking notes—that hardly creates the kind of interaction necessary for a successful sales call. Obviously, holding a slate like a paper notebook and taking notes with a digital pen is far more natural and far less obtrusive, in addition to simply being far more efficient.
  3. Any time forms need to be completed. HP (and now Palm) has a number of important verticals, such as the healthcare industry, where numerous complex forms are completed that require speed and accuracy. A digital pen can be used in these instances to quickly complete such forms, both by writing in text recognition fields and, for example, checking off boxes. If HP/Palm wants to cater to these industries with their webOS slate, then they simply must implement pen technology.
  4. Any time absolute precision is required. Ask any artist whether he’d rather draw or paint on a slate with a highly accurate digital pen or finger paint on an imprecise capacitive touch screen, and he’ll probably point to his Wacom tablet sitting next to his computer in answer.
  5. Any time a user needs to take notes while standing (or in other awkward positions). Think about that one: how easy is a 10” slate to virtually type on when you’re standing in line at the grocery and you need to jot down a quick note?

Of course, the pen could be an option, saving money for those who will be using their slate mostly or entirely for content consumption. And, there’s the risk that developers could get lazy and require the pen for apps where handwriting and drawing aren’t required. However, I’m guessing that the market would welcome the choice, and such developers would be penalized for requiring the pen where it adds no value.

I’ll note that I’m biased here, because I’ve used a Tablet PC running some version of Microsoft Windows (currently, Windows 7) for almost a decade now. I’ve taken literally thousands of handwritten notes and created hundreds of diagrams and drawings using a digital pen, and it’s been one of the most important productivity enhancements that I’ve ever used. And note that each and every one of those notes is fully indexed and searchable (in Microsoft’s outstanding OneNote application), meaning that I could easily locate a note I wrote five years ago with a simple search.

In fact, the Dell Latitude XT tablet that I’m using to write this post has both pen and multitouch support, and even though touch support in Windows 7 is poor, I still use the XT as a touchscreen slate (with the screen swiveled around to cover the keyboard) more often than I use it with the pen. But, when I need precision, particularly in meetings when I need to take notes, the pen is a huge advantage.

And so, I think that the webOS slate should absolutely offer pen support and the APIs to enable quick, efficient, and elegant handwriting and drawing support. Doing so would position the device as a much better content creation tool than other slates on the market (including the iPad and the many Android devices in the pipeline), while doing nothing to hamper its usefulness as a content consumption device.

Update: It’s been noted that handwriting recognition isn’t perfect in most applications. Here are some additional thoughts.

First, notes don’t have to be converted to text to be useful; just keeping them as digital ink for future reference can be fine in many cases. Second, Microsoft has done a great job with it in Windows 7—it’s accurate enough to allow searching digital ink on the backend, while keeping notes in their handwritten format on the front end. That shows that it’s feasible. Finally, forms-based text recognition has been pretty much perfected, and is in common use in many industries.

Update 2: JKontheRun makes the point that it would be expensive to put an active digitizer into a slate (true, but that’s why it could and perhaps should be optional) and that webOS isn’t designed for pen input. That latter point is also true, but then again right now webOS doesn’t have APIs available for the microphone or camera that are on current smartphones, let alone nonexistent hardware components like a compass or front-facing camera.

In short, while the APIs don’t exist, that doesn’t mean they couldn’t be written or licensed from elsewhere. And, I stick by my assertion that handwriting recognition isn’t even necessary on a slate—it would be enough to store the digital ink without converting to text. Would such an API and format be so difficult to implement? Developers, please leave a comment with your opinion.

In any event, they make a valid point, but it doesn’t preclude the addition of pen input at least at some point in the future.


  1. NaNplayer says:

    I’m not terribly enthusiastic about the idea of integrating a digital pen into a WebOS tablet device.

    One of primary concerns is that the inclusion of a pen would require substantial changes to the OS. Accommodating a pen could involve compromises that lessen the interface continuity that is one of the best traits of WebOS. It’s bad enough that we’ve lost some of the primary minds behind the WebOS interface. I’d hate to see an HP minded team ruin it in a misguided attempt to add pen support.

    I am likewise not convinced that handwriting recognition is good enough to be a key feature. I have tried numerous attempts at stylus/digital pen based handwriting recognition from the Newton, through Palm Grafitti and Windows for tablets. Out of all those, I have yet to see a system that I would consider satisfactory.

    At best, a digital pen would be helpful for draw/paint apps. How big is that segment of the potential market? Does it justify significanly modifying and possibly hobbling a great touch interface?

    Given all that, a lot depends on the form factor. If the “PalmPad” is a 10 inch behemoth, then a pen might make more sense. However, I hope that any WebOS tablet is closer to the 5 to 7 inch range. Personally, I’d love to see a 6 inch tablet/pad device with a portrait slideout keyboard or a Pixi-like integrated keyboard. Possibly, you could have a virtual keyboard as optional in the case of a slider design.


  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mark Coppock, Scott Dillenbeck. Scott Dillenbeck said: RT @aboutpalmpre: Should the @HP_PC @Palm #webOS slate use a pen? [...]

  2. [...] with a good system for, say, pen input that would work well for entering information on the go, but they choose to be disingenuous instead. The reason, I believe, is because Apple doesn’t care about pushing technology forward or truly [...]

  3. [...] with a good system for, say, pen input that would work well for entering information on the go, but they choose to be disingenuous instead. The reason, I believe, is because Apple doesn’t care about pushing technology forward or truly [...]

  4. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rahul Sood and Rahul Sood, AboutwebOS. AboutwebOS said: @rahulsood Just like I wrote about here: Some might disagree, but I love my Tablet PC for just that kind of use case. [...]

  5. [...] hope, though, that HP doesn’t ignore the possibilities. I’d have nothing against the ability to take notes in webOS as I do on my Tablet PC, thus giving me one less device to carry [...]

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