Pen Computers and Digital Forms

By Phillips, John T., Jr. | ARMA Records Management Quarterly, April 1994 | Go to article overview

Pen Computers and Digital Forms

Phillips, John T., Jr., ARMA Records Management Quarterly

Personal computers that use a pen or stylus for data input (rather than the traditional keyboard or mouse) are gaining in popularity as the technology matures and finds successful applications. Using a "pen" to perform handwritten notes directly on a computer screen, to place check marks in boxes on screen forms, or to draw screen diagrams that can be stored on disk has a tremendous ease-of-use appeal. The possibility of reducing paperwork and improving the accuracy of data collection are real opportunities that may be realized if applications are well planned and the technology is implemented in a realistic manner. The familiar and flexible utility of pencil and paper is in stark contrast to the glaring screens and awkward keyboards that accompany most computers. For this reason, it is natural to expect that the marriage of pen(cil)s and computers should bring out the best of both worlds. However, as with most extremely new technology, one must be cautioned against inappropriate expectations.

Applications for using pens with computers abound. The most common and obvious applications are those that require convenient information tools due to worker mobility. A sales force in the field talking with customers, warehouse employees taking inventories, and nurses on the move performing patient examinations all need hand-held devices to build and interact with forms and databases of information. Records managers could use pen-enabled portable computers to perform retention schedule development with departmental customers, to take inventories of organizational records, or to deliver automated presentations about procedures and policies to their clientele or management. Due to their small size and quiet convenience, small pen based computers can allow interaction with customers without having to type while talking, thus enhancing both communication and documentation.


Pen enabled computers use a touch sensitive screen that can accept input from a special pen or stylus when it is pressed against the screen. The location where the pen touches the computer screen transmits digital information that is accepted by the computer's processor as the screen digitizes each action of the user. The computer can record drawings and handwriting or accept taps on special areas of the screen that resemble keys or buttons. Pen movements have advantages over keyboards and even some mouse or trackball operations as one can select objects or words by tapping, circling, or simply making an "X" over the item for movement, duplication, or deletion. When jotting down brief notes or making quick drawings on a computer small enough to be held like a clipboard, these are natural movements and thus more intuitive than typing or "mousing" around. Software can then become very easy-to-use. "The ability to wrap words seems to be a favorite feature of the earliest InkWriter (software) users, who can insert handwritten words into the middle of a word processing document that was originated in either InkWriter or a keyboard-based word processor and automatically wrap the original text around the addition."(1)

Except for a few occasional small taps on a screen, pen computers are generally silent. This can certainly be appreciated by individuals that have attended meetings where several high-tech attendees were simultaneously pecking and clicking on their keyboards to take notes on their laptops. Try to imagine a large library reading room with everyone clicking away as they take electronic notes. It wouldn't leave much silence for any solitude while reading. Being able to write on a tablet held in one's hand has numerous advantages. How many laptop (keyboard) users can open their computer, look up a phone number, and write down a few notes when making a phone call from a telephone booth? Such actions are performed with ease on a small hand-held pen based computer referred to as a personal digital assistant (PDA). …

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