Months ago, while perusing the beautiful Obsolete Technology Website, I stumbled on the Linus Write-Top, a rare and peculiar machine which I believe is worth mentioning in these ‘tablet days’. It was released in 1987.
Here are some interesting snippets from the description on that page:
Perhaps the first handwriting-recognition tablet, the Linus Write-Top lets you write directly on the screen with the included stylus. It is not a touch screen, it is a “resistive type touch screen in which a voltage is applied to the screen edges, and a stylus detects the voltage at the touched location.” This allows for very high resolution and repeatable stylus tracking.
Using an advanced symbol-recognition algorithm, the Linus (“of or about lines”) converts your scrawls into perfect text at a rate of about 5 characters per second. It recognizes uppercase, lowercase, numbers, symbols – up to 75 total.
A non-volatile battery-backed removable solid-state RAM card holds up to 512K of data, and is recognized as the “C:” drive by the operating system – MS-DOS 3.30.
The internal rechargeable battery will supply the entire system with power for approximately 5 hours.
Although the screen is small, 5-by-8 inches, it has an attractive electroluminescent backlight.
The Write-Top cannot read any handwriting at all, until it is first ‘trained’ to recognize a persons particular script, which is then saved as a ‘library’.
Anyone else who wishes to use the system must also train it to read their writing as well, or load a previously made library of their own.
The 5-hour battery life is not that bad for the time, and this two screenshots vaguely remind me of the Newton OS:
According to the Obsolete Technology Website, the Linus Write-Top weighed 4 kg, was powered by a NEC V20 (8088) CPU at 7.16 MHz, had 640K RAM, could display 80×25 characters or 640×200 pixels, was IBM-compatible (it ran MS-DOS 3.30), had an internal 720K 3.5-inch floppy, and ports for attaching a printer and a keyboard; there was also an optional internal modem. On another site, AccessMyLibrary, I have found an article reproducing the company press announcement for the product. Here’s an excerpt about the intended marketing plan for the Write-Top:
LINUS will be marketing Write-Top for applications where there’s frequent need to note or enter data, and where it’s not feasible to have a full-size PC or terminal close at hand. LINUS can be thought of as an electronic clipboard for forms-oriented uses. Some examples are health care (doctors or nurses recording on patient charts), insurance (entering data on claims or other forms), and sales (entering orders or using the modem to inquire on order status).
The product is priced in the $2,700 – $3,600 range depending on options and quantity. This makes it a very costly alternative for telecommuters whose work is primarily data entry; the same moeny (or less) would buy a full-featured PC setup. At this price, its only advantages for telecommuting are in cases where hand-writing in the information is preferable to keying it in, or where space-saving and portability are real musts. If the price drops, Write-Top could be worth considering for various lower-volume data entry applications, and for keyboard-shy executives.
Too bad the Write-Top sold poorly (apparently less than 2,000 units) and disappeared after its acquisition around 1989 by TRW Electronics, Inc. I have no idea about its real performance, but this device does seem quite interesting and ahead of its time. Perhaps its overall design didn’t make it as comfortable and practical to use as the manufacturer intended (the Write-Top attached to its base, or dock, looks a little bulky), perhaps it was too expensive, or so ahead of its time that it didn’t turn out to be the success the Linus company hoped. Still, I think it deserves to be considered, since today everybody seems to talk about tablet computing without putting things much into perspective.