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Why handwriting recognition on the iPad isn't a joke anymore

Michael Simon | Jan. 19, 2016
With the success of the Apple Pencil for the iPad Pro, could handwriting recognition be in the cards for iOS?

But just because Apple has the ability to take another crack at handwriting recognition doesn’t mean it will. While Baum suspects iOS will soon have “some level of handwriting capability,” it remains to be seen whether Apple will ever make it a key component of the Apple Pencil experience and risk opening itself up to a new crop of Simpsons and Doonesbury jokes.

Talk to the hand

Thomas Brand, one of the world’s last Newton users, thinks Apple’s history with handwriting recognition is precisely why we won’t be seeing a resurgence anytime soon.

“Apple probably knows better than almost any other company that handwriting recognition is a bet with long odds,” said Brand, who published his full handwriting recognition thoughts on his blog, Egg Freckles. “For over 10 years Apple worked on improving the Newton’s handwriting...Rosetta, the Newton’s print recognizer, has been considered by many reviewers, testers, and users to be the best in the industry, even 10 years after it was introduced. But still the Newton’s handwriting recognition was ridiculed with bad press every step of the way. Handwriting recognition just hasn’t been reliable enough to sell a premium product.”

But this is Apple we’re talking about, and it’s hard to believe Pencil’s full capabilities are only meant for artists. Opening up the iPad Pro to writers with a modern take on handwriting recognition would position the iPad Pro as a tool for all professionals, not just creative types. But still, Brand isn’t convinced.

“Maybe Apple will come out with an amazing new handwriting recognition system, but I doubt it,” he said. “When you are the most successful company in the world with priorities from streaming music to self-driving cars, there is very little room for the long bet. Especially when you gambled big and lost the same bet over two decades ago.”

If Apple ever does take another crack at handwriting recognition, it’s likely to be a baby step rather than a leap, perhaps as a beta feature of Notes, not unlike how Siri got its start. There’s also the education route. The iOS 9.3 beta introduced a renewed push into schools, with a dedicated app for teachers, powerful classroom management and smart sharing tools designed to position the iPad as an essential tool for students. Handwriting recognition would fit nicely into that endeavor, helping kindergarteners learn how to write and high schoolers take notes naturally and, perhaps more importantly, without talking to Siri.

“Voice is good, but handwriting is the way we’re going to move,” Baum said. “The ultimate goal is to capture anything you can write with a pen and understand it and translate and allow it to transfer into your digital workflow...We have to make it easy, and this is the technology that will do that.”


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