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Touchless typing: electronic pens and voice-activated software are coming into their own as ways to enter data into a computer.

In today's world of computers, lack of typing skills is a handicap. The old one-finger typing mode may have worked in a pinch years ago when an envelope needed addressing and the 100-words-per-minute secretary was out to lunch, but now touch typing is as necessary for an executive's survival as knowing how to program a microwave oven or a telephone answering machine.

But will it always be that way?

Probably not. Despite the proliferation of new keyboard products--all designed to make data entry easier, faster and less painful (for those who suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome)--the keyboard soon may become as obsolete as the automobile running board. The threat comes from two emerging technologies: the electronic pen, which writes directly on a special computer pad, and sophisticated software that translates the human voice into computer commands, typed words and numbers. What's driving the effort to make the keyboard obsolete? Portability, speed and convenience. After all, no keyboard can be more portable than a pen. And when the keyboard and pen are compared to the human voice, the spoken word wins hands down.


Efforts to get computer users to handwrite their computer commands rather than type them have not been successful. There is a handful of pensystem computers on the market, but the writing is reserved mostly for drawing and other less-than-verbal commands. Where the electronic pen is making the biggest inroads is in miniature devices called personal digital assistants (PDAs). These itty-bitty computers (the size of a paperback book) are too small to incorporate a keyboard so the pen device is a natural.

But to date at least, the electronic pen has not proved to be mightier than the keyboard. For proof of that consider the reactions of many pioneers who rushed out to buy one of the first PDAs, Apple's Newton, which was designed, among other things, to take notes, store a personal calendar and, with some extra hardware, act as a communicator--sending and receiving faxes. But the Newton reached beyond its immediate technical grasp. Many users eventually stashed the device in their bottom desk drawers because even when such notes as "Back at 11" were neatly scribed on the screen, the Newton was wont to translate it into "Racket H" or some other gibberish.

Despite its penmanship problem, the electronic pen industry has not given up: It's working on the theory that the race is not to the swiftest but to the most persistent. While the current crop of second-generation PDAs relies less on handwriting translation power and more on preset menu items that the user can select with the touch of the pen, a third generation of real pen-powered PDAs is near.

The upcoming generation of PDAs will make use of a novel software approach for pen writing. Whereas devices like the Newton required the user to "teach" the computer to read individual handwriting (the device did improve somewhat with patient user training), the new thinking is to reverse the process: Teach the user how to write in a way that's more compatible to the computer so, for example, a Z would not be confused with a 2 or a 5 with an S. In other words, the goal is to make the software computer-friendly instead of user-friendly.

The tool that accomplishes this is a software product called Graffiti, developed by Palm Computing, Inc., a small Los Altos, California, company. In the coming year, the software will be installed in future models of PDAs such as Sony's Magic Link, Motorola's Envoy, Hewlett-Packard's LX line and Tandy's and Casio's Zoomer.

To make the penned message easier to read, much of the alphabet was redesigned to eliminate ambiguities. For example, the letter A is written without a crossbar and the letter T looks like an inverted L. It takes a bit of practice to get the hang of the new script, but once that barrier is crossed, the program works fine. In one demonstration we jotted a few words following the new script rules and the program translated the message quickly without a typo.

There are drawbacks: The Graffiti system, requiring block printing, is not as swift as cursive writing and it generally won't work well for lefthanded people unless they are extra careful. In addition, sloppy painting confuses the program and produces typos. And then there's the need to learn the special alphabet, which although easier to learn than touch typing, is just another inconvenience and a barrier to its widespread adoption.

It's questionable whether the pen ever will become widely accepted for use with either desktop or even portable computers, for which size constraints are not as significant as with PDAs. Clearly the pen will become more popular in the type of handheld devices used by accountants for inventory control and for some auditing tasks in which a portable writing instrument other than a pad and pencil is important.

Graffiti is not the alpha and omega of electronic pen technology. At best, it's an intermediate solution. And while it's unlikely that the electronic pen will replace the keyboard totally, it surely will make us less dependent on it.


For some CPAs a computer that takes dictation is a blessing. Today, there are several products on the market that can take dictation as well as if not better than many humans. (See sidebar, "For More Information," on page 65.)

Although many computer gurus predicted that handwriting recognition would be the first technology to pose serious competition for the keyboard, voice-recognition technology seems to be moving more rapidly. And yet, despite this technology's advancement, users have been slow to adopt it.

One barrier has been price; the other has been lack of quality. Until recently voice-recognition software had been very expensive, very slow and not particularly accurate. Older, low-budget products had very limited vocabularies (2,000 words or less) and the user had to speak haltingly ... with ... short ... pauses ... between ... every ... word.

In the last two years, technology has advanced rapidly, and the need to speak haltingly is no longer a prerequisite. Although users still have to "train" the program to recognize their voices--a practice that takes a few days--most of the leading products let a user speak at a fairly normal pace and the program keeps pace.

Voice recognition requires a robust computer: usually a 486 with at least 16 megabytes of random access memo and, of course, a special sound card circuit. Errors--mostly caused by ambiguities such as sound-alike words (to, too, two)--still have to be corrected, but for the most part the programs are effective.

The price barrier has been eroding quickly. In mid-1994 the leader of the field, Dragon Systems, Inc., of Newton, Massachusetts, slashed the price of its Dragon-Dictate program to $1,000 (when the program was introduced in 1990, it carried a $9,000 price tag). The price cut prompted its two biggest rivals, International Business Machines and Kurzweil Applied Intelligence, to slash prices, too. Today, a complete voice recognition system, with sound card and microphone, can be purchased for between $500 and $3,000. In addition, many of the systems are no longer voice independent, which means they and not limited to one master's voice.

One voice program, Microsoft's Sound System, while not powerful enough for dictation, can do many chores, including effectively replacing the mouse when operating in Windows. One of its modules, Voice Pilot, responds to voice commands to activate applications, call up files and even order the computer to cut, paste and print. And if you don't want the computer to eavesdrop, you can order it to "go to sleep" and wake up later when you issue a "wake up" command.

The $59 product also can be used to record spoken notes, which can be attached to a file--so a colleague whose computer also has a sound card and the right software can hear your voice note.

For CPAs, an especially valuable module is the system's ProofReader. Once evoked, it can speak back a highlighted range of numbers or selected words in a file. It can even recite numbers as they are entered.

While voice-activation software has been slow to win computer users' hearts, it's become the darling of phone users. Voice systems are now installed in many stationary and mobile phones so that a user need only say, "Call office," and the office number is dialed.

The most alluring prospect is the marriage of PDAs and voice recognition. Entering data into the PDA would be as simple as speaking into a tape recorder--only now the data would be digitized and formatted as if keyboard-entered. With such a system, a spreadsheet could be created and a fax dictated, addressed and transmitted--all with voice commands while the user is riding in a taxi.


* ELECTRONIC PENS and voice-activated software are beginning to challenge computer keyboards as ways to enter data into computers.

* TODAY'S PEN TECHNOLOGY is still crude, but a new system is being introduced that uses simplified, nonambiguous letters and numerals.

* VOICE-ACTIVATED SOFTWARE is gaining ground faster even than electronic pens. The programs convert spoken words into commands and type text. Prices for such software have dropped sharply in recent months and the latest programs transcribe the words fairly accurately and quickly.

* ONE VOICE PROGRAM replaces the mouse, allowing users to activate any command in a menu. It even can work like a proofreader--by speaking back numbers entered into a spreadsheet.

* IN THE NOT-TOO-DISTANT future, data will be entered into tiny personal digital assistants, allowing a user to create a spreadsheet, dictate a letter and send a fax, all with voice commands--while riding in a taxi.

RELATED ARTICLE: For more information

Sources of information for voice-activated systems:

* Articulate Systems 600 West Cummings Park Suite 4500 Woburn, Massachusetts 01801 (617) 935-5656

* Dragon Systems, Inc. 320 Nevada Street Newton, Massachusetts 02160 (617) 965-5200

* International Business Machines 1507 LBJ Freeway Dallas, Texas 75234 (800) TALK2ME (825-5263)

* Kurzweil Applied Intelligence 411 Waverly Oaks Road Waltham, Massachusetts 02154 (800) 380-1234

* Microsoft Corp. One Microsoft Way Redmond, Washington 98052 (800) 426-9400

* Speech Systems 2945 Center Green Court South Boulder, Colorado 80301 (303) 938-1110.

STAIVLEY ZAROWIN is a Journal senior editor. Mr. Zarowin is an employee of the American Institute of CPAs, and his views, as expressed in this article, do not necessarily reflect the views of the AICPA. Official positions are determined through certain special committee procedures, due process and deliberation.
COPYRIGHT 1995 American Institute of CPA's
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Zarowin, Stanley
Publication:Journal of Accountancy
Date:Apr 1, 1995
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