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PalmSource picks up handwriting tool

The company will incorporate new handwriting recognition software into the Palm OS, replacing a signature program that is at the heart of a patent battle with Xerox.

PalmSource is turning over a new leaf for handwriting recognition, replacing its idiosyncratic software amid a growth in popularity for keyboards in the handheld industry and amid a continuing patent battle with Xerox.

The operating system subsidiary of handheld maker Palm

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announced Monday that it has signed a licensing agreement with Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Communication Intelligence to use its Jot handwriting recognition software--dubbed Graffiti 2, powered by Jot--in current and future versions of the Palm OS.

The PalmSource move comes as the industry works to extend the scope of the handheld market to include more mainstream buyers, by introducing lower-cost models and by making the devices easier to use.

"People don't want to learn a new alphabet (when they purchase a new device)," said Michael Higashi, a director of marketing at PalmSource.

One of the quirky yet endearing characteristics of the Palm OS has been the handwriting method that handheld owners had to learn in order to enter data into devices. For example, to write a "t" using Graffiti, the owner would have to write an upside-down "L." In Graffiti 2, a "t" can be written using the more conventional crossbar. However, the software can be trained to suit an owner's handwriting style, according to PalmSource.

Grafitti 2 is already available to licensees such as Sony and Kyocera and will be embedded into version 5.2 and 4.1.2 of the Palm OS, said Higashi. It's up to the licensees as to when they will begin shipping devices that come with Graffiti 2 out of the box, he said.

The original Graffiti handwriting recognition software lies at the heart of an ongoing legal battle with Xerox over patent infringement. In 1997, Xerox filed a lawsuit charging that U.S. Robotics, now named Palm, was using its handwriting recognition technology, Unistrokes, in the Graffiti software without a license.

PalmSource made the switch to the new handwriting program for its more natural and intuitive operation, said Marlene Somsak, vice president of communications at Milpitas, Calif.-based Palm. However, the Xerox lawsuit did influence the move, she said.

"The Xerox case did indeed have a role in our decision (to explore alternative handwriting recognition programs)," said Somsak. "It prompted us to take a fresh look at the situation... (Jot) is the better choice as we look to grow the market."

Somsak added that the Xerox lawsuit could go on for years and that even if Palm wins the case, it will not be going back to using the original Graffiti program in its operating system.

Keyboards are gaining popularity among Palm OS device makers as an alternative method of data-input to handwriting. Handspring and Sony already have devices in the market with built-in keyboards.

Higashi acknowledged the trend, but said he saw no conflict between the two methods. For inputting short bits of information such as a phone number, owners will tend to use handwriting input. But for something more involved such as an e-mail message, a keyboard can be more convenient, he said.