Is the pen mightier than the PDA?

It has been 10 years since Apple Computer Corp.’s Newton first dared to make handwriting a digital exercise, but according to a new survey, Canadians refuse to kick the pen and paper habit.

The survey was commissioned by Sanford Canada, maker of Paper Mate pens and Laurentian coloured pencils

and was timed to coincide with the introduction of a new line of writing tools. It claims, among other things, that 86 per cent of Canadians would rather take notes in meetings with their pens or pencils than with a handheld or laptop device.

The survey was conducted online, which suggests the more than 1,500 responses do not represent an overwhelmingly luddite population. Dan Reio, Hewlett-Packard Canada’s product manager for commercial notebooks and tablet PCs, said that while the numbers seem somewhat high, he was not surprised by the results.

“”Most of the people that I’m in front of, when they go to meetings they take their pen and paper with them,”” Reio said. “”At the end of the day, the typical environment is paper and pen.””

Though Apple discontinued the Newton in 1998, Palm Inc. and a host of other hardware makers have had more success with updated versions of the concept, though their growth has also slowed.

“”I haven’t seen the penetration of the PDA like I thought I would,”” said Kelly Watson, Sanford’s marketing manager, noting that Sanford has responded to the PDA’s popularity with ink and stylus combo pens and will continue to follow market trends. “”We would just evolve with the times.””

Still, it’s evident the stylus has proven no substitute for the pen.

“”A pen and pencil is universal,”” said IDC Canada analyst Eddie Chan. “”It’s the way we’ve been brought up. You can’t change habits overnight.””

But Reio is confident habits will change soon, as the tablet PC, released to the public last fall, becomes a more common part of the tech landscape. The tablet, he said, is much better suited to substitute for pen and paper than the PDA.

“”It’s size and it’s capability,”” he said. “”The screen size (of PDAs) is still small. When you’re taking notes people are used to an 8.5 x 11 page.””

He said people are invariably impressed when they see the tablet in action and adds the presence of a Microsoft standard and vast improvements in handwriting-recognition technology make it the tablet’s time.

“”The moons are all lined up,”” he says.

According to IDC Canada, ultraportables, which includes tablet PCs, comprised 4.9 per cent of total portable computer sales in the first quarter of this year. Tablets made up 25 per cent of the ultraportable segment, or about 1.25 per cent of the total portable market.

“”It’s a pretty small segment,”” Chan said.

Whether those numbers mean expectations have been met or missed depends on who you ask, but Chan suggested judgment should be reserved.

“”It’s pretty early, so to assess success or failure is pretty premature,”” he said. “”You’re talking about a $5 pen versus. a $3,000 PC, so it’s two different spectrums,”” he said.

Reio predicted the results of Sanford’s survey will be very different if it is repeated five years from now.

“”As tech advances, that 86 per cent will go significantly down over the next couple of years,”” he said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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