Apple pen-tablet plan revives Newtonian handwriting
Microcosmic God at work
Or it may not.
Published on Thursday, the filing carries the rather prosaic appellation: "Method and Apparatus for Acquiring and Organizing Ink Information in Pen-Aware Computer Systems"
The Reg spoke with one of the patent's authors, Larry Yaeger , who was the technical lead on the development of the Apple Newton's second-generation handwriting-recognition technology, known as Print Recognizer and remembered by Newtonians as the one that worked - as opposed to the much-ridiculed  first-generation system that helped sink the pioneering Apple handheld.
According to Yaeger, today's patent filing contains a rework and resubmission of rejected portions of an earlier Apple handwriting-recognition patent, number 7,564,995 , "Method and apparatus for acquiring and organizing ink information in pen-aware computer systems," which was filed in March 2000 and awarded in July 2009 - "if I am parsing the uspto.gov web site correctly," says Yaeger.
When asked if today's patent filing might mean that pen-based handwriting recognition would be included in Apple's rumored tablet, Yaeger - who has left Apple and is now Professor of Informatics at Indiana University - told The Reg: "I don't know - and believe me I wish I did."
Today's filing is fiendishly complex, but essentially it describes a recognition technology based on a system able to identify not merely a pen's strokes, but to organize those strokes into what the filing describes as "ink phrases." An "ink manager," which includes an "ink phrase termination engine", passes the ink phrase to a handwriting recognition manager, which parses the identified phrase, identifies its meaning, and passes it off to an ink-enabled application.
One advantage of phrase-based recognition, according to the filing, is that such as system can more-easily associate the content of a user's strokes with the context of a form, display area, or field, even when "one or more ink strokes (including the first ink stroke) is wholly or partially outside of the input field."
An illustration lifted and gussied-up from the original 2000 filing for use in today's version indicates how different areas on a tablet's display can be identified by the ink manager. The filing also notes that the ink phrase termination engine can determine when a stroke phrase has been completed in a designated area, thus helping increase the accuracy of the stroke-phrase recognition.
A tablet's display can help identify whether a pen-input phrase has been completed
Although such gesture-based, multi-touch interfaces as used in Apple's iPhone and iPod touch - and, for that matter, MacBook trackpads - have the unarguable convenience of finger-tip control, pen-based input can be far more precise.
And Apple hasn't abandoned pen-based input entirely. Take a look, for example, inside your Mac's System/Library/PreferencePanes folder, and you'll find an item labled Ink.prefPane. It's waiting there for you to hook up a compatible graphics tablet. Doing so will fire up Mac OS X's built-in handwriting-recognition technology, Inkwell , which not only will convert your handwriting into English, French, or German text, but which also supports editing gestures for selecting, editing, and deleting text.
And so if Mac OS X is ready for handwriting recognition, will an upcoming tablet incude it as an optional text-entry method? Doing so could not only allow for text entry in a manner more comfortable to some than an on-screen soft keyboard as used by the iPhone and iPod touch, but could also better support forms-based input that could find the tablet a home in medical, industrial, and transportation settings.
Yaeger hopes so. Understandably, he'd like to see his work find a home in a ground-breaking Apple product. "I really, really hope it's a pen-based tablet computer," he told The Reg, but again admitted "but I just don't know."
But - like any true Apple-gadget lover - Yaeger wants more; namely, a tablet that'd also allow him to carry his reading collection . "The thought of an Apple-provided pen-based tablet computer that's also the world's best ebook reader would be a dream come true," he mused. ®
When Larry Yaeger was a Distinguished Scientist at Apple's Advanced Technology Group - the highest position on Cupertino's technical track - his business card gave his title as Microcosmic God. Ah, Apple in the good ol' freewheeling 1990s...