The notion of using some form of stylus or pen for interaction has been around since the earliest days of computing. Rewind back to 1957, there was the Styalator using a stylus for hand writing recognition. In 1964 the IBM 2250 was provided with a pen for vector graphics that was sensitive to light against a CRT monitor.
By 1987 Go Corporation was founded with a focus on pen computing, and consequently developed an operating system named PenPoint OS with this in mind. Intel invested in Go, causing angst at Microsoft for supporting a competing product.
Bill Gates signed a non-disclosure agreement with Go in 1988. Nevertheless, Go felt uneasy when by 1992 Microsoft had two competing products in the pipeline. There was the lesser known WinPad that failed to gain much traction, followed by Windows for Pen Computing that received limited success. Both of these products were really just adding another layer over Windows 3.1; they were not a new operating system entirely developed from scratch. Go whilst seen in a positive light by industry, had its own troubles. Pen computing didn’t take off as hoped with consumers en masse. Cashflow became an issue and not long after their acquisition by AT&T Corporation, the company folded up in 1994. As was common up until the turn of the century, Microsoft were involved in yet another antitrust court case, although in the case of Go it didn’t occur until as late as 2005.
The copy of Windows for Pen Computing 1.0 I have was sourced online; initially this was an OEM release for the GRiD 2260 and GRiD PadSL 2050 computers. The GRiD 2260 aesthetically has a resemblance to the modern-day Surface Pro. Incidentally this appeared in a TV drama titled ‘Cries from the Heart’ (and for whatever reason was also known as ‘Touch of Truth’) where an autistic boy uses the computer for communication.
Using Oracle VirtualBox 6.0.8 I installed MS-DOS and Windows 3.1 into a new virtual machine. Unfortunately, I don’t have a suitable device to test it as intended. Installation comprised of what would have been two floppy disks. There’s very little in the way of prompts; select your device and choose whether a mouse is going to be used in conjunction with the pen.
When Setup completes, you’re left back at Program Manager with a newly created program group titled Microsoft Pen Tools. A small handful of utilities are provided. It’s only really once you restart Windows 3.1 that changes become more apparent.
The first change noted was the original Windows 3.1 splash screen had been replaced to reflect a modified Windows installation. The desktop wallpaper is now set to Marble, whilst border width of windows had gone up a couple of notches. Running in the background is the Pen Palette, allowing to write in applications that traditionally had not used the pen for input. To support this, the standard VGA driver had been changed over to the Pen Video Driver (file named as VGAP.DRV). Under VirtualBox it makes no difference as there’s only the option of emulating a PS/2 mouse, so I’m unable to scribble down a few words in Write.
Under the Control Panel as shown below, a number of new options appear although this is susceptible to change based on the manufacturer’s device. In this case, both Pen and Handwriting applets would appear to be standard issue provided by Microsoft, whereas the remaining applets were developed by GRiD. The Pen applet provided customisation of colour and line width as you scribble across the screen. Double-tap screen area and speed recognition is also changed here. Handwriting as implied is about converting your writing over to text. Multiple users can be added to suit their preferences.
The first applet from GRiD, Calibrate, is used to test and adjust your pen’s accuracy. Once again under VirtualBox it won’t work and will simply terminate at the click of a mouse. Then there was the Power applet which was rather basic to adjust backlight duration, whilst the Rotate applet would allow Windows to be viewed in portrait or landscape modes. Rotating however required Windows to restart each time, a far cry from today’s devices where it’s instantaneous.
For much of Windows 3.1, Windows Help received changes covering pen use and gestures. These were presented as additional buttons beside the default Contents and Search buttons. Selecting the Demo button brings up Learning Pen Basics which is also accessible from Program Manager. Divided into four parts, this was a tutorial to assist with using the pen effectively by practising gestures and handling of text. Personally the cut, undo, and copy gestures I would probably get these mixed up with the loop movement.
A program titled Notebook is provided which essentially can be used as a scrapbook. Immediately it reminded me of Microsoft OneNote, just a more primitive version of it. Notes can be scribbled down and organised over multiple tabs, although selecting the Calendar tab kept causing a General Protection Fault under VirtualBox. Objects such as pictures and audio files can also be added. It potentially could have been a handy program in its own right if it wasn’t entirely dependant on using a pen.
Microsoft later gave it another crack with Windows for Pen Computing albeit with not a great lot of enthusiasm and released version 2.0 intended for Windows 95. The product was effectively binned. The late 1990s saw pen computing becoming more of a niche and was implemented into small low-powered devices, running Windows CE and Palm OS instead of full-blown desktop operating systems. Apple since 1993 had manufactured the Newton and MessagePad series though these became irrelevant around the time the company had a major shakeup with Steve Jobs returning. It wasn’t until 2002, that Windows would see pen features once more with the release of XP Tablet Edition.