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The Pen Keeps Giving

History is unambiguous how the pen has proved “mightier than the sword”. Even if it was something of a rocky transition. For generations a small percentage of the population made writing a part of their daily life. A few people produced enough products and/or traded enough goods that they learned to write business agreements. Still others built cities based on rules of law. The Magna Carta stands today as a symbol of liberty throughout the free world.

Around the world, with some exceptions, the pen takes priority over the sword as we have become a thinking society, rejecting as evil those who rely on force to advocate for their cause. Certainly a great gift enabled in no small part by the power of the pen.

History also gives credit to the printing press for helping mankind into the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution. It is as if our brains were just idling for thousands of years, then suddenly, between 1450 and 1500 following the invention of the Gutenberg Press, mankind published more than 15 million books.

But back to the pen…

What if the improvement that happened was not just an increase in the paper distribution of ideas, but an increase in ideas due to the increase in writing? Scientific studies have confirmed the linkage between hand writing and cognitive brain development.* Did we actually make significant changes to the performance of the human brain?

During this same period Luca Pacioli (the Father of Accounting) wrote the first text book on Bookkeeping.   We also got engineering books, medical books, law books, and every sort of book on farming, sciences, machinery, pumps, architecture, and many more. All were written… by hand… with a pen… prior to going to press. When we read our brains “receive” and categorize information. Writing forces an organized and methodical process by which we “give” to others. The pen takes us deeper and deeper into our subject matter which is where creative problem solving happens. Following the printing press, for the first time in man’s history, millions learned to read, millions picked up a pen, millions went deep into writing, which changed millions of brains. Once the brain is rewired, and repurposed for cognitive problem solving the ideas just kept coming.

Pen Postulate #1

“The pen acts as a column for the distillation of ideas from our greatest renewable resource… the human brain.”

OK, fast forward, what will the pen give humanity in a digital age?

I see five (5) possible scenarios brewing;

  1. Nothing, the optimum pen stays analog. Unlikely, but the transition may be slow in coming.   Digital pens like the Apple Pencil and Microsoft’s Surface might get limited adoption and society may continue growing consumption of plastic pens (10s of millions/day) and paper (more than a million tons/day). Lack of useful software is a real risk and may stall adoption.

If you have personally used the new pens in either of the above devices then you probably felt that spark of excitement way down in your brain stem, like an idea reaching for the surface, or a voice that says “I can do something cool with this”. Well, your app is likely out there or coming soon.

  1. Mobile productivity will leap forward with pen software enablement. Keyboards and mice are not the right input for mobile users. However, productivity software such as Excel, Word, PowerPoint, along with email and calendars keep me returning to the keyboard. Like a bad dream I’m running hard to a good place (a mobile place) but something is holding me back. The solution we can expect is for our digital “ink” strokes to be utilized by applications as easily as if they were words typed on a word processor… once this is reality, the race for broad adoption will be on.

To help explain let’s use an example:

Microsoft has had a great run with Word, truly a dominant and world changing product. However, Word is tightly coupled to the keyboard and incompatible with our thirst for mobility.   We no longer want a keyboard based “word processor”, we want a pen based “ink processor”. The software apps we use will understand every stroke, from letters to words, from numbers to equations, including symbols, shapes and gestures. The ink itself will reflow as needed, based on screen orientation and to accommodate edits within the document. Even if an image is inserted the ink will reflow as naturally as if it were text. Now you might imagine the pen’s new found power to create, and to distill ideas in the digital realm.

  1. Student learning and development will make measurable improvement. E-readers will become e-reader/writers (eRWs) and any book can become a growing creative canvas. Ink will become interactive, searchable and shared between students, parents, teachers, and content providers. The book is now a project, growing with students’ notes, problems solved, and teachers’ added materials.

Today’s method requires students live with an unorganized mess of handwritten and typed notes separated by islands of text books, workbooks, lab books, spiral note books, or on top of PDFs, presentations and/or handouts. Pure chaos!   By contrast a digital organization will consolidate content logically and searchable in a single learning management system. Sound years away? Not so. These systems mostly exist now even if only for keyboard based environments. OneNote is an effective organization tool and a number of cloud storage options will be targeting students with solutions as well. The piece most of these miss today is the ink support but you can be sure this is coming.

Teachers know well that math, physics, biology, chemistry, arts, engineering and design don’t lend themselves to learning with a keyboard. So, the race has already started to incorporate digital ink into these curriculums. Part of the motivation toward pen based solutions is due to recent studies that show the keyboard is inferior to handwriting for learning.** As the learning management systems begin to solve the organizational chaos, it will be exciting to watch the progress students will achieve.

  1. Pen based collaboration will be something we naturally just do… elevating communications, learning, and idea exchange to new levels. Collaboration is about creativity and it does not come in the form of a mouse or keyboard.

We used to joke in any meeting or conference room that the person with the dry erase marker “holds the power”, now the person who has the digital pen, with the right software… “holds the power”.

Today’s interactive white boarding experience (both remote and face to face) has made great progress. Imagine teachers or engineers writing on the same sheet of digital paper to solve complex problems. A mechanic may draw on top of a photo, engineers on a data sheet, architects on a floor plan, or doctors on a medical image. Collaboration is best when it is details intensive with complex ideas coming from multiple directions. You may have hesitated to pursue these products in the past due to cost of conference room systems but you can expect high precision and low cost options are on the way. At the very least collaboration software is now supporting ink so your pen based tablet becomes an indispensable collaboration tool.

  1. These new pen based devices help make unstructured data structured. I’m asked frequently if this is really such a big deal. Actually, yes. It is about information and information is money. Making the unstructured structured will have immediate and valuable impact on organizations. BI systems run on structured data. Pick almost any industry where mobile professionals take notes; insurance agents, first responders, inspectors, medical, all field sales, and support engineers. Access to their timely unstructured notes is high value.

A great example is how Salesforce works with notes today. A sales person takes paper notes from a sales call and in 3-5 days (maybe) he transcribes the same notes into the Salesforce database, double the work and too late for use of time critical information by the rest of the organization. Access to, and speed of information determines winners. Microsoft tried to buy Salesforce for over $55B but settled for a relationship that will make OneNote tightly integrated with the Salesforce database. The medical industry faces the same challenge. Our health care providers should be providing care and not transcribing notes into a database. Forms based businesses will get the benefit of simplified processes. We will work naturally as we do now within current industry processes, except our ink will be managed as part of the structured data.

And this brings us to…

Pen Postulate #2: Those individuals and organizations embracing natural pen input will generally outperform those with keyboard only based systems.

Don’t assume the US will lead this technology transition. Keep in mind the pen will be more inviting for Chinese, Arabic, and other languages as their alternative is an arbitrary QWERTY keyboard.   Regardless of where broad adoption happens, we now have a front row seat to see the pen integrate with the digital world. The pen is the ultimate tool for giving and it will continue to pull exceptional qualities and ideas from deep inside us.

Rick Seger is a leading advocate for digital pen adoption and experience factors

*“How Handwriting Trains the Brain” by Gwendolyn Bounds, Oct. 5, 2010

**“Take Notes by Hand for Better Long-Term Comprehension” Pam Mueller, Psychological Scientist & Daniel Oppenheimer, Psychology Researcher   Apr.24, 2014

“Students using laptops in class show decreased academic performance” (Fried, 2008; Grace-Martin & Gay, 2001; Kraushaar & Novak, 2010)

“Should You Take Notes by Writing or Typing?” by Tri Cooke

“Students using laptops are not on task during lecture” (Kay & Lauricella, 2011; Kraushaar & Novak, 2010; Skolnick & Puzo, 2008; Sovern, 2013)