Wrestling with Thumbs

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Late last year I watched in amazement as my mother took up Graffiti. (I'm talking about the system of entering text on digital organizers made by Palm, Handspring and Sony; she hasn't started spray-painting walls just yet.) Using a stylus on the screen, you are required to write characters the Graffiti way — an A without the horizontal line, and so on. It can be a daunting thing to learn, yet after watching my techno-challenged mom scribble happily on her new Handspring Visor, I felt certain it was the alphabet of the future.

Now my faith is collapsing, largely because Palm founder and Handspring co-founder Jeff Hawkins has converted to the new religion of thumb keyboards. You have probably seen these things on Blackberry e-mail pagers; they are tiny raised keys in regular qwerty order, the whole keyboard not more than a few inches wide. Handspring's popular Treo ($399), a combination cell phone and organizer, comes in either Graffiti or keyboard flavor. The new Sony Clie PEG-70V, a $599 organizer, is similarly agnostic. It offers Graffiti on the color screen, but flip that around and there's a thumb keyboard underneath. Hawkins believes the latter will gradually become dominant — and this is the guy who created Graffiti.

Is he right? Are my mom and millions of other Graffiti users doomed to eventual extinction, their language as dead as Latin? To find out, I put the Clie and both versions of the Treo to the test. I'm a fairly fast typist and a two-year Graffiti artist, so either system could work for me. But I needed answers. Which method was faster? Which led to fewer mistakes? And which felt more comfortable?

Without doubt, the mini-keyboard was the winner of the first two challenges. My thumbs were able to navigate the keys easily by touch, though surprisingly they did a lot better on the Treo's keyboard than on the Clie's (the Treo's is smaller, but the keys aren't quite so flat). The text raced across the screen fast enough for me to take dictation, and I soon needed to hit the delete key only once a paragraph or so. It made me realize how regularly I make mistakes in Graffiti — every other g comes out as a q, and I am still at a remedial level when it comes to the number 9.

When I was done, however, my poor thumbs needed a massage. This is the perennial problem with keyboards; doing any motion over and over puts you at risk for repetitive-stress injuries, and pecking at thumb keyboards is no exception. Graffiti, for all its faults, has never given me so much as writer's cramp.

The trusty stylus still has a future; it's better for navigating menus and playing games. Even the keyboard version of the Treo comes with a stylus. But I prefer Graffiti the way it comes on the new Clie. Its screen records characters exactly the way you write them, helping me nail those pesky gs and 9s. Maybe someday I'll even write as fast as Mom.

Questions for Chris or his mom? E-mail him at cdt@well.com