The Apple Newton. The Palm Pilot. Both of these early tablets used handwriting recognition to lure an audience into a new gadgets, to show a computer could be every bit as easy to use as a notebook and a pen. Now, Google is following suit by releasing handwriting recognition to search in iOS and Android devices. And almost 20 years after Apple released the Newton, I’m not just still wondering if handwriting recognition is feasible; I’m wondering if we should even bother with it at all.
To use Google’s handwriting search, you’ll need to enable it on your phone. Then you click a cursive “g” at the bottom of the search screen, and instantly, Google’s entire search screen goes sketch friendly. You can write a word anywhere on the page, and it will magically appear within the search box. Theoretically.
In actual practice, the experience summons just as many expletives as an old Newton. The most immediate issue is that there are no smoothing algorithms to rescue your words from the finger-painted, preschooler aesthetic. (Have you ever tried to write a word in Draw Something? It’s just as bad.) So every letter you write comes with a free side order of negative reinforcement, an undeniable level of fundamental ineptitude that leaves you feeling clumsy and infantile.
But things only get worse when Google confirms your suspicions regarding the illegibility of your own poor finger-handwriting, and it can’t understand seemingly simple words like “pizza” (which for me, was constantly interpreted as “pi22a,” probably because truly sharp, cornering gestures feel foreign on a touchscreen). I was confounded why Google’s traditionally brilliant search AI just let “pi22a” appear in the search box without any sort of intervention.
It doesn’t help matters that even the shortest words are nearly impossible to squeeze on an iPhone’s screen. Cramming the “a” in “pi22a” again brought me back to school, this time realizing that I was drawing far too large for some science fair poster board. (“Beaker” can be hyphenated, right?) Luckily, Google remedies this real estate problem by allowing you to draw one letter at a time, adding each to the search box sequentially. Of course this method is slow, but it ends up saving time by enabling Google to suggest the phrase that you’re trying to search in real time, just as it can for typing text.
Yet ultimately, this realization will only lead you to another: It would have been faster just to type this silly word in the first place. Handwriting recognition is the flying car of the user interface. It’s a liberating idea, but it is and will always be logistically unwieldy in the face of faster, safer alternatives. It’s time to end our romanticism with handwriting and just call typing the standard.
[Hat tip: Taxi]