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Handwriting Makes a Digital Comeback, on Apple Devices at Least


Bringing the art of writing to the 21st century.

One of the many casualties of the digital age, decent penmanship, may not be lost to history after all. A few apps are bringing back the art, with a few modern improvements.

I was always terrible at handwriting, and worse at drawing. Since I've glued myself to a keyboard for the past decade or so, my ability to write or draw has only gotten worse. With the exception of grocery lists, my thoughts are usually stored in zeroes and ones somewhere. I even struggle to read my own hieroglyphics. But perhaps I was too quick to forget my grade-school handwriting lessons. I am seeing a trend in tech toward reviving the tradition of dragging a black line of ink on paper - or a capacitive touchscreen.

One of the biggest innovations that Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) brought to the iPhone was accurate input from your fingertips. Before MultiTouch, there were a few pen-based inputs for mobile devices such as the Wacom (TYO:6727) tablet, and the Sony (NYSE:SNE) Clie. Steve Jobs was famously against the stylus, and pushed his engineers hard to make sure they weren't necessary on the iPhone.

"Who wants a stylus. You have to get them, and put them away, you lose them, yuck. Nobody wants a stylus. So let's not use a stylus. We are going to use the best pointing device in the world," he said at the first iPhone keynote.

Since then, accurate touchscreen inputs have become ubiquitous, but we are finding new uses for the pen. Last year, Apple honored FiftyThree, a New York-based startup launched by Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) veterans, with its annual Design Award for an app called Paper. A quintessential killer app for creative drawing, Paper somehow renders your drawings to make them look better, and it works even more effectively with a stylus pen. Mixing colors in Paper is far more natural than it is in other digital drawing applications, such as Adobe's (NASDAQ:ADBE) Creative Suite programs. It isn't intuitive for humans to think in terms of mixing red, green, and blue light. FiftyThree found a paper on optics by two dead German scientists to make a much more user-friendly color-mixing tool. Currently, Paper is only available for Apple users. Android (NASDAQ:GOOG) are eagerly awaiting their own version.

Microsoft also included a stylus option with its Surface Pro tablet/laptop hybrid. Samsung (OTCMKTS:SSNLF) is also bringing back the stylus with the Galaxy Note and the the S-Note App.

Smart Pens

A few companies are putting a digital twist on actual pen and paper writing, too. Today, Reuters profiled a South Korea-based company called Equil, which makes a smartpen and app.

"The best ideas often start on paper," said Greg Appelhof, president of the Americas for Equil, told Reuters. "But people use all sorts of ways of capturing notes, from sheets of paper to very expensive journals. We wanted to create something that could capture it all, regardless of where it was written," he said in an interview.

With EquilNote or EquilSketch, users can draw, write, and scribble on actual paper with a special Bluetooth smartpen called Equil JOT. All of their sketches or notes will appear on the program's iPad or iPhone app simultaneously, like magic.

Livescribe, a US company, produces a smartpen as well that works similarly, but also records audio that synchronizes with notes on the page. Livescribe's interactive notes require special paper, however.

Moleskine, the makers of those cute little journals that hipsters use for the occasional artistic, poetic grocery list, has partnered with its digital equivalent, Evernote. It is the first paper notebook designed for digitizing notes and drawings, using the iPhone's camera. The Evernote app recognizes your handwriting and syncs it across your devices.

Twitter: @vincent_trivett
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