What was sorely missing from yesterday’s iPad unveiling was … Graffiti?!?

The iPad, unveiled WednesdayYesterday’s unveiling of the Apple tablet, which we now know is called the iPad, showed a device with a larger surface than the iPhone / iPod Touch. It allows for a better reading and video experience and provides improved ways to do things like manage emails and photographs. Largely unaddressed with this release is a far more important question: How will this multi-touch make me  better at thinking and creating?

Rocking the PDA old skool with Palm’s Graffiti

Return with me for a moment to a simpler time, before smartphones got “smart.”

It was a time when the handheld device du jour was a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA). In the 1990’s, Palm released their Pilot PDA. These Treos, sans cell phone required a stylus for text entry. There was no QWERTY keyboard, and not even a cell phone number pad.

The user needed to learn a type of stylus script called Graffiti to get text into the thing. Some people got good enough to write with something close to the speed of traditional longhand. Personally, as a lefty, I found it more comfortable to use Graffiti than to write in longhand. I didn’t have to think about the angle of the paper in relation to my contorted left hand. Smearing ink wasn’t an issue.

This was many people’s introduction to a computer user interface beyond the keyboard. There was a lot wrong with it, though. Styluses are a pain to use. And many Palm users found Graffiti so difficult to use that they simply called up a hunt-and-peck keyboard. Here’s a YouTube demo of it in use.

For me the golden promise of multi-touch monitors is not the ability to flick through photo galleries or zoom into a map — as cool as those functions are. Ever since the first mass market multi-touch keyboard was made available with the invention of the iPhone, I was waiting for a faster way to record thoughts.

I was hoping yesterday to learn of a gestural script — a Graffiti without the stylus.

What’s so wrong with QWERTY keyboards?

Whether displayed on an iPhone, an iPod Touch, or now the iPad — old-fashioned keyboards simply don’t free the user to quickly jot something down and get back to work.

Instead, these devices force users to leave the fluid, intuitive work of (let’s face it!) grown-up finger painting. The appearance of the QWERTY keyboard sends them marching back indoors like a recess bell. Ugh! The taps of fingers on keys — even ultra-modern keys, projected on slick glass iPad surface — still evoke the drudgery of an oppressive cubicle farm.

I know this sounds a little glib, but think about it. Our speed of productive output are in many ways limited by our office supplies. Give someone a soul-crushing keyboard to think with and you’ll be producing something constrained by that medium. If their work soars, it’s in spite of the keyboard, not aided by it. In 2003, Jeff Han demonstrated to cheers the full effect of a multi-touch experience. I predicted then that this technology will quickly change the very nature of our work experience.

Apple knows this.

There have been accounts of Apple applying for and receiving patents on what would be the building blocks of a new gestural interface. New Scientist recently recounted the patents Apple has applied for to tap into “touch or hover” and “gesture dictionary.” That day may arrive with a new version of the iPad. It cannot come soon enough.

Related post:

  • Jeff Han’s demonstration of multi-touch screens
  • 3 Replies to “What was sorely missing from yesterday’s iPad unveiling was … Graffiti?!?”

    1. Following along with the unveiling of the iPad was pretty fun, but after the buzz wore off of this new “toy”, as a web developer, I dont see an immediate use for it.

      I love the price point, the device is sleek, it looks amazing and I am sure it will be wonderful to use, but where does it fit in with my work flow? I have a desktop, and iPhone and a laptop… I’m not sure where, for work purposes, the iPad fits in.

      The bottom line is this device, as groundbreaking as it may be, is not targeted towards the uber-geeks(as typical Apple devices always seem to target). With its price point, I think Apple is able to get the regular person to possibly buy this device for their entertainment needs, fall in love with it (like we all did with the iPhones), and possibly by another Apple product (with OS X) over a PC when its time to upgrade.

      Yes, this is a sarcastic conspiracy theory, but it might hold some truth. Even with all the naysayers and people arguing what should have been, and should not have been on the device (myself included), Apple, once again, under a blanket of secrecy and many rumors, has introduced another device that will, in the long run, change the human race.

      (note: If I sound crazy, I blame the cold meds)

    2. LOL! You just sound like an Apple “uber-geek” 🙂

      Perhaps this is Apple’s attempt at the win that Nintendo scored with the Wii — a gaming system for “everyone else” — everyone BUT the uber-gamer.

      Thanks for your thoughts, Brian. Feel better.

    3. @bartka I would think that anyone that has three computing platforms — two of which are wireless — would find little need for something like an iPad. I’m in somewhat the same boat, although my laptop suddenly looks a little long-in-the-tooth.

      As I look at how I use my laptop, it is 20% mobile “power” work and 80% web browsing and email. As much as I’d miss that 20%, I have to admit that the supposed experience and low-cost of the iPad is a tempting replacement. Combined with the keyboard dock and a mobile version of TextMate, it could probably even fill in on most of that 20%.

      @TheLarch I was looking for a better way to input as well. The on-screen keyboard seems inefficient at best — I think Apple is acknowledging that with the keyboard dock.

      Personally, I wanted a stylus and a sheet of paper app — I find myself needing to write more often than type when mobile.

      A new, innovative input method is needed, and I think it is something most tech companies are aware of and working on. At the end of the day, I’ve grown up with a keyboard, though, and breaking that use-model is going to need something that is immediately better — not just better after I train myself. That’s a tough challenge to tackle.

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