Exclusive: Writing's on wall for Mac OS X

The company's InkWell software will let Mac users replace their keyboards with pen input, sources said

Is the pen mightier than the keyboard? Mac users may soon be drawing that conclusion, thanks to forthcoming pen input software from Apple. Dubbed InkWell and currently in pre-release testing under the codename Rosetta Stone, the software reportedly taps into the handwriting-recognition technology that Apple originally developed for its discontinued Newton line of PDAs.

Besides interpreting users' hand-printed text, sources said, InkWell will enable them to perform a variety of operations -- from opening and closing files to surfing the Web -- via pen input with virtually no practice.

According to sources, InkWell will ship alongside Mac OS X, which is currently due to arrive early in 2001 -- a version may also be available to users of Mac OS 9.

Apple is reportedly working closely with Wacom to ensure InkWell's compatibility with the tablet maker's line of pressure-sensitive input devices.

In addition, sources said Apple is considering adding pen input support to the trackpad of Mercury, the company's next-generation PowerBook G4. "The idea is to eliminate the need for a keyboard," said one source familiar with Apple's plans.

InkWell is a compact software package that comprises a control panel, some help files and a shared library, sources said. Users will write on the tablet as if it were a sheet of paper; the software also supports the "eraser" capability built into Wacom's current line.

Like the voice interface for Apple's own PlainTalk software and IBM's ViaVoice, InkWell's InkPad and InkBar appear as floating windows on the user's desktop.

InkPad is a simple notepad interface where handwritten input is converted into editable text that can be placed in any document.

InkBar is a collapsible toolbar that will let users turn recognition on and off, launch the Ink Control Panel or InkPad, program the buttons on the stylus as modifier (Control, Option, Command or Shift) keys, or to act as modifying keys themselves.

Control over this standard commands means that users will be able to, for example, create a new folder on the desktop by holding down the command modifier button on the stylus and writing the letter "N" anywhere on the tablet. Another example: alternatively, users can click the Command button on the InkBar, then write a letter "Q", for example, to quit an application.

According to sources, when users click on a text-entry box (such as the location bar in a browser or a word processing document) and begin to write, text is recognized and entered as if it had been typed in via a keyboard.

Sources said the Ink Control Panel will have three panels that let the user fine tune the software. The first will let them modify the sensitivity of the handwriting interpreter, the delay after writing before it interprets your handwriting and other interface niceties.

The second panel lets users turn on and off specific "gestures", or symbols the user can write to signify a space, a carriage return or a tab, or to cut, copy and paste. The third panel includes a custom dictionary where the user can add commonly used words that InkWell doesn't interpret correctly.

"The recognition was surprisingly accurate," one beta tester said. "When printing neatly in a straight line, Ink was able to decipher all but the most illegible of writing. [Ruled paper taped over the tablet is extremely helpful, not only for guidance, but also offers more resistance than the slick surface of the tablet]."

"When writing long passages of text, much like a piece of paper, when you reach the edge, you go back over to the left and begin again," the source said. "Ink automatically reformats your writing when it converts it to text."

Apple declined to comment on the reports.

A return to the vanguard of handwriting recognition would be poetic justice for Apple, which pioneered the use of pen input with the Newton PDA championed by then-chief executive John Sculley in the early 90s.

While Newton won the loyalty of a hard-core of adherents, it was soon overshadowed by simpler, cheaper Palm devices that included their own Graffiti handwriting-recognition technology.

Under current Apple chief exec Steve Jobs, the Newton operation was shelved in early 1998.

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