Samsung Galaxy Note phablets include a stylus, called "S-Pen".

Pen computing refers to any computer user-interface using a pen or stylus and tablet, over input devices such as a keyboard or a mouse.

Pen computing is also used to refer to the usage of mobile devices such as tablet computers, PDAs and GPS receivers. The term has been used to refer to the usage of any product allowing for mobile communication. An indication of such a device is a stylus or digital pen, generally used to press upon a graphics tablet or touchscreen, as opposed to using a more traditional interface such as a keyboard, keypad, mouse or touchpad.

Historically, pen computing (defined as a computer system employing a user-interface using a pointing device plus handwriting recognition as the primary means for interactive user input) predates the use of a mouse and graphical display by at least two decades, starting with the Stylator[1] and RAND Tablet[2] systems of the 1950s and early 1960s.

General techniques

User interfaces for pen computing can be implemented in several ways [3]. Current systems generally employ a combination of these techniques.

Pointing/locator input

The tablet and stylus are used as pointing devices, such as to replace a mouse. While a mouse is a relative pointing device (one uses the mouse to "push the cursor around" on a screen), a tablet is an absolute pointing device (one places the stylus where the cursor is to appear).

There are a number of human factors to be considered when actually substituting a stylus and tablet for a mouse. For example, it is much harder to target or tap the same exact position twice with a stylus, so "double-tap" operations with a stylus are harder to perform if the system is expecting "double-click" input from a mouse.

A finger can be used as the stylus on a touch-sensitive tablet surface, such as with a touchscreen.

Handwriting recognition

The tablet and stylus can be used to replace a keyboard, or both a mouse and a keyboard, by using the tablet and stylus in two modes:

Different systems switch between the modes (pointing vs. handwriting recognition) by different means, e.g.

The term "on-line handwriting recognition" is used to distinguish recognition of handwriting using a real-time digitizing tablet for input, as contrasted to "off-line handwriting recognition", which is optical character recognition of static handwritten symbols from paper.

Direct manipulation

Further information: Direct manipulation

The stylus is used to touch, press, and drag on simulated objects directly. The Wang Freestyle system[4] is one example. Freestyle worked entirely by direct manipulation, with the addition of electronic "ink" for adding handwritten notes.

Gesture recognition

This is the technique of recognizing certain special shapes not as handwriting input, but as an indicator of a special command.

For example, a "pig-tail" shape (used often as a proofreader's mark) would indicate a "delete" operation. Depending on the implementation, what is deleted might be the object or text where the mark was made, or the stylus can be used as a pointing device to select what it is that should be deleted. With Apple's Newton OS, text could be deleted by scratching in a zig-zag pattern over it.

Recent systems have used digitizers which can recognize more than one "stylus" (usually a finger) at a time, and make use of Multi-touch gestures.

The PenPoint OS was a special operating system which incorporated gesture recognition and handwriting input at all levels of the operating system. Prior systems which employed gesture recognition only did so within special applications, such as CAD/CAM applications[5][6] or text processing.[7]


See also: History of tablet computers

Pen computing has very deep historical roots.

The first patent for an electronic device used for handwriting, the telautograph, was granted in 1888.[8] What is probably the first patent for a system that recognized handwritten characters by analyzing the handwriting motion was granted in 1915.[9] Around 1954 Douglas T Ross, working on the Whirlwind computer at MIT, wrote the "first hand-drawn graphics input program to a computer".[10] The first publicly demonstrated system using a tablet and handwriting text recognition instead of a keyboard for working with a modern digital computer dates to 1956.[11]

In addition to many academic and research systems, there were several companies with commercial products in the 1980s: Pencept, Communications Intelligence Corporation, and Linus were among the best known of a crowded field. Later, GO Corp. brought out the PenPoint OS operating system for a tablet PC product: one of the patents from GO corporation was the subject of recent infringement lawsuit concerning the Tablet PC operating system.[12]

The following timeline list gives some of the highlights of this history:

See also


  1. ^ Dimond, T.L. (1957-12-01), Devices for reading handwritten characters, Proceedings of Eastern Joint Computer Conference, pp. 232–237
  2. ^ Groner, G.F. (August 1966), Real-Time Recognition of Handprinted Text, Memorandum RM-5016-ARPA, RAND Corporation
  3. ^ Signer, B. (2024), Pen-based Interaction (PDF), Handbook of Human Computer Interaction, Major Reference Work, Springer Nature
  4. ^ WANG Freestyle demo, Wang Laboratories, 1989, retrieved 2008-09-22
  5. ^ Computerized Graphic Processing System: System User's Manual, Applicon Incorporated, 1973-09-01
  6. ^ Newman, W.M. (1973-09-01), The Ledeen Character Recognizer, Principles of Interactive Computer Graphics, McGraw-Hill, pp. 575–582
  7. ^ Coleman, Michael L. (1969), Text editing on a graphic display device using hand-drawn proofreader's symbols, from Pertinent Concepts in Computer Graphics: Proceedings of the 2nd University of Illinois Conference on Computer Graphics, University of Illinois Press
  8. ^ a b Gray, Elisha (1888-07-31), Telautograph (PDF), United States Patent 386,815 (full image)
  9. ^ a b Goldberg, H.E. (1915-12-28), Controller (PDF), United States Patent 1,117,184 (full image)
  10. ^ Ross, Doug (1989), Retrospectives 1: The early years in computer graphics (PDF), SIGGRAPH 89 Proceedings, pp. 27–28
  11. ^ a b Dimond, Tom (1957-12-01), Devices for reading handwritten characters, Proceedings of Eastern Joint Computer Conference, pp. 232–237, retrieved 2008-08-23
  12. ^ a b Mintz, Jessica (2008-04-04), Microsoft to Appeal $367M Patent Ruling, The Associated Press, retrieved 2008-09-04
  13. ^ Gray (1888-07-31), Telautograph, United States Patent 386,815
  14. ^ Goldberg, H.E. (1915-12-28), Controller, United States Patent 1,117,184
  15. ^ Moodey, H.C. (1942-12-27), Telautograph System, United States Patent 2,269,599
  16. ^ Moodey, H.C. (1942-12-27), Telautograph System (PDF), United States Patent 2,269,599 (full image)
  17. ^ Bush, Vannevar (1945-07-15), As We May Think, The Atlantic Monthly
  18. ^ RAND Tablet, 1961-09-01
  19. ^ 50 Years of Looking Forward, RAND Corporation, 1998-09-01, archived from the original on 2009-05-07
  20. ^ Fryberger, D. (March 1972), An Innovation in Control Panels for Large Computer Control Systems, Proc. 4th IEEE Particle Accelerator Conference, Chicago IL USA, March 1..3, 1971, pp. 414–417
  21. ^ Pencept Penpad (TM) 200 Product Literature, Pencept, Inc., 1982-08-15
  22. ^ Inforite Hand Character Recognition Terminal, Cadre Systems Limited, England, 1982-08-15
  23. ^ Users Manual for Penpad 320, Pencept, Inc., 1984-06-15
  24. ^ Software Control at the Stroke of a Pen, Pencept, Inc., 1985, retrieved 2009-05-21
  25. ^ Handwriter (R) GrafText (TM) System Model GT-5000, Communication Intelligence Corporation, 1985-01-15
  26. ^ The BYTE Awards: GRiD System's GRiDPad, BYTE Magazine, Vol 15. No 1, 1990-01-12, p. 285
  27. ^ Wang Laboratories (1989), The Wang Freestyle System, WANG Laboratories
  28. ^ Lempesis, Bill (May 1990), What's New in Laptops and Pen Computing, Flat Panel Display News
  29. ^ "Momenta Corporation 1/40 Pentop Computer - RICM". Retrieved 2020-06-04.
  30. ^ Agulnick, Todd (1994-09-13), Control of a computer through a position-sensed stylus, United States Patent 5,347,295
  31. ^ Agulnick, Todd (1994-09-13), Control of a computer through a position-sensed stylus (PDF), United States Patent 5,347,295 (full image)
  32. ^ NCR announces pen-based computer press release, archived from the original on 2008-05-02, retrieved 2007-04-20
  33. ^ Penpoint OS shipping press release, archived from the original on 2007-08-30, retrieved 2007-04-20
  34. ^ "The history of ThinkPad". Archived from the original on 2007-04-29.
  35. ^ Amstrad PenPad PDA600. Computing History (2011-10-21). Retrieved on 2013-12-09.
  36. ^ Trends at COMDEX Event 1999, retrieved 2008-08-11
  37. ^ Microsoft (2005), Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 Hardware Requirements,, retrieved 2009-03-14
  38. ^ "Annual Report 2009" (PDF). Wacom.
  39. ^ Fingerworks, Inc. (2003), iGesture Game Mode Guide,, retrieved 2009-04-30
  40. ^ MacEssentials (2007-08-02), Rubrik Apple: Das Lexikon der Fingersprache,, retrieved 2009-05-16
  41. ^ Druin, Allison (2009-03-16). Mobile Technology for Children: Designing for Interaction and Learning. Morgan Kaufmann. p. 177. ISBN 978-0-08-095409-7.
  42. ^ Fried, Ina (July 6, 2005). "Go files antitrust suit against Microsoft". CNET.
  43. ^ A New Antitrust Lawsuit - Go Corp. v. Microsoft. Groklaw (2005-07-04). Retrieved on 2013-12-09.
  44. ^ HP TouchSmart tx2z, HP, retrieved 2008-11-28