Fitaly in the Press

Extracted from the Piloteer Magazine The writing on the wall
by Marek Pawlowski

The Piloteer Magazine, Issue VIII, October 1998

I am getting rather fed up with this article. This would now be its fourth revision had I not decided to scrap the entire piece and start all over again. Ironic, if you like, as the article is going to look at the rapid emergence of alternatives to the Graffiti handwriting system; the problem is that it has been all too rapid. Every time I had written the opening paragraphs, a new system would be announced or made publicly available and the introduction would be deleted and rewritten. However, it would appear that the market has settled down a little, quiet during the August "silly season", so I will attempt to complete it without further interruptions.

Well, Graffiti is dead. The writing is on the wall. Killed in apparent assassination. But who are the conspirators? There are four of them - the Californian Vince Lee, founder of TealPoint Software, the Seattle-headquartered Tegic Communications group, Jean Ichbiah’s TextWare, working out of Burlington, MA and CIC, recently defected from the Windows CE bloc and based in California. Over the last month Graffiti was hit by a TealPoint sniper in an operation codenamed "TealScript", had its motorcade fired upon using "T9" rocket launchers by operatives from Tegic, was hit by an aerial bombardment spearheaded by the "Fitaly" jets, flying out of neighbouring TextWare and was eventually struck by a Jot-class nuclear device, fired from a CIC stealth submarine.

With that overplayed metaphor out of the way, the truth is that the recent launch of four alternatives or supplements for Graffiti has brought into question the future of the system, an input method which has been part of a formula adopted more rapidly than any other computing platform in the world. Does this really mean that Graffiti is missing presumed dead or is it merely an expected influx into a market sector vacuum?

The latter, with all due respect to the prowess of the new systems on offer, seems most likely. Each of the offerings is wildly different, pointing to true innovations rather than a negative technology explosion designed to eliminate Graffiti. The companies themselves, whilst making sure the advantages of their own software are apparent, refuse to put down Graffiti, with Tegic’s press statement even citing it as part of the benefit of T9, with Andrew Seybold (on behalf of Tegic), editor of influential Outlook newsletter, saying, "While you are using T9, you can enter Graffiti strokes to advance a line, add a space, or delete a character. Being able to switch back and forth is a tremendous benefit."

T9 is perhaps the most technologically advanced of all the systems. It uses algorithms and a linguistic database of some 60 000 entries, along with 5000 proper names, to suggest possible letter combinations as you tap its 9 key keypad. It has received widespread acclaim for its ease of use and it will soon by seen on mobile telephony, including smartphone, products from Motorola, Nokia, Philips and Samsung.

Personally I found it more than a little cumbersome for my purposes, but I can quite see its suitability for quickly jotting down appointments and contacts, especially when there is little time or space for using a larger device. Perhaps the form factor of the Palm III is not quite right for T9..? It is certainly a matter of personal preference, so give it a try and see if it is right for you.

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Just as revolutionary is TextWare’s Fitaly. Essentially, they have taken the Qwerty keyboard, smashed it with a large hammer, and proceeded to reassemble it in a layout more suited to the PalmPilot. They have done their research too, and I have often found myself amazed at the way in which the stylus point seems to naturally fall upon the chosen letter without conscious volition. Combined with some impressive implementation, such that the keyboard may be zoomed, moved and hidden freely (all written under the Hackmaster specification), Fitaly really is a comprehensive alternative to using Graffiti.

To highlight the suitability of its input system, TextWare organised a "Dom Perignon" Speed Contest. Users were encouraged to write a certain sentence as quickly as they could and submit their results to TextWare, which compiled a leader board. After some fierce stylus tapping, the winner emerged as Marcus Macrae from London. Macrae achieved a phenomenal 65 words per minute using the Fitaly keyboard, winning himself a bottle of the champagne in the process. The overall results from the competition showed that out of all the entries, Fitaly was an average of over 15 words per minute faster than either the screen Qwerty or Graffiti.

Jean Ichbiah of TextWare asked if I could present Macrae with his champagne over lunch, so we met in London a few weeks ago. Marcus explained that he found Fitaly a much more natural and accurate way in which to enter text into the Palm III, citing a dedication to learning the system and the incentive of the competition as the reasons he adopted it so quickly. He also found that it made taking lengthy notes in meetings or at conferences much easier and faster, with the availability of the symbols and more arcane characters also a great help to him. When pressed on the statement made by Jean Ichbiah that, "The dominant direction for HotSync will definitely become from the Palm to the PC," Macrae confirmed that much of his text input was performed on the Palm III, but also identified the benefit of being able to cut and paste large volumes of text from the desktop.

Working in a marketing consultancy role for pharmaceutical giant GlaxoWellcome, with a familiarity with information technology, Macrae appears to typify the vast majority of Palm Computing platform users, a fact which sheds an even brighter light on the findings of the contest. He went on to explain that he foresaw a significant role for hand helds such as the Palm within the corporate environment, although whether Fitaly will be the system used in such a context remains to be seen.

TealPoint have taken a significantly different approach, looking to supplement rather than supersede Graffiti. TealScript enables the user to have much greater control over the Graffiti recognition system, configuring it to match their own handwriting style and tweaking it to make input faster and more convenient. It is certainly an excellent concept and I am sure it will assist many, but, I am not sure it will offer anything like the potential some of the others do for radical change. Let me explain...

Its very purpose is to aid one person in writing on one Palm device. Fine. But what happens when one person uses many Palm devices, many people use one Palm device or many people use many Palm devices. In these three situations, TealScript becomes a bane rather than a boon. Would you, as a corporate IS manager, fancy talking five hundred employees through how to configure a device to match their handwriting? No, TealScript will remain a valuable tool, but one for personal users and enthusiasts, not one for the growing number of business deployments.

In my military metaphor, the nuclear strike was left up to CIC and so it may well be for Graffiti. The background is certainly there, with Jot first being seen on the Palm-sized PCs (PSPC), and we all know what the vast majority of Palm Computing platform users think about those. But analysts did find some strong points with the PSPC specification and one of them was Jot. If anything is going to replace Graffiti, Jot may not be too far removed from the eventual successor.

Working in a similar fashion, Jot uses half of the screen for lowercase alphabetical characters, a small central zone for uppercase alphabeticals and the other region for numerical characters. However, the difference is Jot will recognise a number of cursive handwriting styles, meaning you can write without having to learn Graffiti. And, yes, unlike earlier attempts at this sort of thing, Jot actually works.

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Implemented cleverly, Jot even enables you to apply some of its benefits to Graffiti itself. You can set the Jot recognition system to use Graffiti, but enable you to write anywhere on the screen as opposed to being limited to the silkscreen zone. Although at $39.95, it is unlikely that many will purchase Jot for this purpose alone (in fact, there is a Hackmaster extension called WriteHere!, which will do it for considerably less).

About the only certainty in this input war is that consumers are benefiting. When the last issue was being written, you could write using either Graffiti or screen Qwerty. Two months on and there are six options. Let them slog it out with each other I say. There will always be those who prefer pencils to biros and ballpoints to fountain pens, and this war is little different. Everyone writes differently, everyone speaks differently and everyone thinks differently, so choose a system which is right for you. And, in the true spirit of the Palm Computing industry, all of the systems are available for trial free of charge - they almost deserve a round of applause.

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