Where's my Graffiti?

There’s been a bit thread on the IxDA list about patents in design, and Apple’s Gesture system, and whether or not it’s good or bad that Apple is patenting something that seems like it may fare better as an open standard.

I have mixed feelings about it, and it touches on some things that I’ve been thinking about for a while.

An interesting example is the Palm writing system called Graffiti. There’s a decent Wikipedia entry about it, and its history.

As I’ve said before, I loved my Palm Pilot, Palm III and Palm V. After that, they started going to hell. Mainly because of these lawsuits.

Graffiti was a single-stroke shorthand method, that kept you from having to remember which letters had more than one stroke, and also kept you from having to match up a ‘cross stroke’ (since you can’t see the character as you draw it). It was easy to learn, and once learned it worked great. Granted, not everyone liked it, but I and many I knew were much more accurate and efficient with Graffiti than we are with these god-awful smaller-than-chiclet-keyboards.

Evidently, Xerox had a single-stroke character shorthand they’d invented around the same time, and Palm folks had seen it at PARC (you gotta wonder why PARC was still showing stuff to outsiders at all, but whatever). To what degree this inspired or shaped Hawkins’ Graffiti, I don’t know and really don’t care.

All I know is that at a certain point, Palm had to ditch Graffiti and buy the far inferior technology from Jot (which they called Graffiti II…). It’s also in Windows handhelds as the ‘block recognizer.’ It’s inferior because the elegance (in function) is gone — some of the letters require cross strokes. I can never remember which ones. The punctuation works differently, and not as well. It’s not just because it’s different — I’ve learned LOTS of new systems that have changed, and after a month or two done just fine. There’s a fundamental difference between them.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this except to say that I’m not sure what good the patent law did in this case. I understand patents and their importance to commerce. But my question to Xerox is — where is Graffiti? Why can’t I use it now? If you’re going to sue for it, why don’t you put it in products I can use or at least license it out?

This all reminds me of an excellent essay by Jonathan Lethem, “The Ecstasy of Influence.”

He does a great job of explaining how the arts simply couldn’t exist without a *lot* of borrowing of ideas, building and riffing on others’ work. He then has footnotes showing how even his own essay is full of such borrowings that would normally go unnoted.

I recognize that industrial design is a different animal from the ‘arts’ — but I think they share a lot of DNA. Seems to me that, as many other activists in this area have said, the more encompassing patent law becomes, the less innovation and good for the public can result. Of course, we don’t want a free-for-all of theft, since it ruins economic incentive. So some kind of balance needs to be struck.

I honestly have no idea what that balance is. I just want my Graffiti back.

Author: Andrew Hinton

I use information to architect better places for humans. More at andrewhinton.com.

2 thoughts on “Where's my Graffiti?”

  1. Have you used Apple’s Ink, it is rather similar to Graffiti. I tried it on a friend’s system with pen pad not long after it came out a few years ago (OS X 10.2?). Knowing Graffiti made it more difficult as I would tend toward Graffiti strokes, but it was good.

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