Paper may quickly be going out of style, superseded by touchscreen devices, but pens are here to stay, according to Ron Heldman of N-trig, an Israeli company that makes pens for touchscreens. Contrary to popular belief, the capacitive multi-touch pen, as it is properly called, used for tablets and other devices, is still very relevant, and its market share is growing every day.
“We have a vision for the pen-enablement of a wide range of devices,” said Heldman. “Pens are more accurate than plain touch, and the fact that pen support is being built into more devices than ever shows that there is a growing demand for pen technology.”
N-trig develops chipsets and pens, which it supplies to manufacturers for inclusion in their devices, among them the most recent Sony Vaio and Acer Aspire laptops, as well as a large number of Android tablets (the pens are branded by the manufacturers). According to tech advisor and analyst John Peddie, more people are using devices for note-taking and writing — and they want accurate pens and software that will let them take notes conveniently, with the notes either saved as is on the device or in the cloud, or translated into text for use in a word processor.
“The growing number of pen-enabled touchscreen devices indicates the need for precise and accurate writing capabilities in the next generation personal computers,” said Peddie. “We have found that above 25% of the total touchscreen portable PCs announced so far are pen-enabled, and we predict that 50% of all new portable PCs with touchscreen size between 11-inch and 15.6-inch announced by the end of 2016 will support a dedicated active pen.”
That’s good for N-trig, said Heldman. “For writing, with the intent that an app will later convert what is written into text, you need a pen that will allow for maximum accuracy.” Handwriting, as far as a device is concerned, is just a picture. In order to properly convert that picture into text that can be manipulated in word processors, email programs, etc., a pen and its supporting software needs to be able to isolate characters and identify letters as successfully as possible.
All devices, of course, come with keyboards, physical or virtual. So why would anyone want to use a pen to jot down information? It may seem counter-intuitive to use a pen on a computer device, but according to Heldman, the opposite is the case. “In a world of text messages and printed email, a handwritten note stands out, bringing back a personal touch to corporate communications. Plus, for a lot of people, writing is still faster than typing.”
With N-trig’s hardware working in conjunction with software that can recognize handwriting, “you get the best of both worlds, with writing converted to text, allowing for storage and search of information.” According to Heldman, today’s text conversion software is much better than previous generations’, but none are perfect — yet.
One of the reasons for the invention of the all-in-one device, pioneered by the iPhone and the iPad, was to alleviate the need of dragging around a plethora of devices — a cellphone for voice calls, a laptop for note taking, a PDA (like a Palm Pilot), a portable modem for remote data communications, etc. Pen use would seem to be a step backwards — requiring users to schlep around another device.
That could be a problem, acknowledges Heldman — but not for N-trig. “We work with equipment manufacturers to ensure not only that our pens are compatible with their systems, but also to ensure that the pens are easily portable.” Thus, he said, some tablets or laptops will have a built-in pocket where the pen can be stored while the device is being transported. Devices already on the market that don’t have those pockets built in will work together with N-trig and case manufacturers to design cases and sleeves that have a slot for pen storage.
N-trig pens and technology are compatible with many Android tablets, and has received Windows 8 certification, so it can be used on many laptops and notebooks. But in the device space, everyone knows that a development isn’t “real” until that 500 pound elephant, Apple, adopts it. As it happens, Apple has filed patents for its own version of smart pens. There has been no indication from Apple on when, or if, these pens will soon be available for iPads or iPhones, but the fact that Apple is working on design and has come up with something it can patent itself is a very good sign for the re-emergence of the pen’s prominence.
“According to studies, 37% of iPad owners use pens,” said Heldman, adding that it would be very unlike Apple not to make a product to satisfy such a large segment of consumers (While N-trig’s pens ship with Windows and Android devices, there are dozens of pens made by other companies for use with iOS devices).
N-trig, headquartered in Kfar Saba, has been working on digitizing, touch, and pen technology since 2008. “When we first started with touch it was a niche area, and now it is most definitely mainstream,” said Heldman — a fate he expects awaits pen technology as well. “USB was once a niche technology too, and today you wouldn’t buy a laptop without two USB connections. With companies like Sony, Acer, Intel and others working with us and integrating pen technology into their devices, we see pen becoming more mainstream every day.”
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