LGR Oddware: The $400 CrossPad Tablet from 1998

LGR Oddware: The $400 CrossPad Tablet from 1998

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[ballpointed jazz music] [computer buzzes, beeps] - Greetings and welcome to LGR Oddware, where we're taking a look at hardware and software that is odd, forgotten and obsolete. And this time it is the CrossPad from... Cross. It is a pad that digitizes things, and you can just take any kind of paper. It doesn't need anything special. You just plop that on there and this pen will write in ink on the paper and it digitizes that ink right there in the memory of that.

Stores it so you can later retrieve it and edit it, and do whatever with your text and drawings and things on a PC. I think it's fascinating and rather odd. So let's take a look! Alrighty, so! On the table of oddness today is the A.T. Cross Company CrossPad, a $399 device when it hit store shelves in March of 1998. And this tablet looking thing is not a PDA, but a PDN.

The self-proclaimed "first Portable Digital Notepad." So this is something that you use in conjunction with a normal notepad and you can write or draw anything you like on paper with an ink pen, and it's stored in memory in conjunction with your paper copy. Almost like a instantaneous digital carbon copy.

Well, as "instant" as it is transferring things off of the device onto a computer when you're done. But anyway, yeah, it's got one megabyte of flash ROM memory inside. No expandable or removable storage. But on its own it's able to store up to 50 to a hundred pages of text or drawings give or take, depending on the content itself.

And each page is saved as an *INK file, and that is sent to your PC later and then converted to searchable text and images for editing or pasting into other docs or converting to other file types. Yeah, as soon as I heard about this, I had to give it a look. And that is all thanks to Liz and Chris, LGR viewers who sent this to me a number of years ago. Sadly the unit itself and the pen fell victim to battery corrosion, but I was able to clean things up and get replacement stuff.

So, yeah, we've got a fully working CrossPad by Cross now. And well, who is Cross? They're a company that's been around, at this point, almost 180 years. Starting off in 1846, based in Providence, Rhode Island and they make fountain, ballpoint, and roller point pens, mechanical pencils and refills for all those, as well as pen cases and reading glasses, journals, wallets, touchscreen styluses and other things like that.

But by the mid-nineties, their traditional writing instrument sales were trending downward and the company stock price was dropping fast. So, in July of 1996, Cross established a new division called the Pen Computing Group, or PCG, in an effort to "bridge the worlds of traditional and electronic paper, expand the company's traditional product base and return Cross to acceptable margins." Business, business, business! And the only notable result of this forward-thinking, yet somehow still stuffy sounding effort was the CrossPad. Which came about due to collaboration with IBM based on a new handwriting recognition technology that Big Blue had been developing for a few years. And yeah the packaging here really screams IBM, even though it's technically just an A.T. Cross product. And really one aimed not at your standard everyday user at all, but business professionals and such.

People with money, you know. It was really marketed as an unobtrusive note-taking device for meetings and things like that where typing on a laptop might distract others or you needed quick digitization without bothering with a stylus and a PDA, or tablet PC, or any of that. And to that end, it takes standard US letter sized eight and a half by 11 inch sheets of paper or smaller. And the way this works is there's a radio transmitter inside the pen that it comes with and receiver hardware inside the tablet itself. This means that it needs that CrossWriter pen.

Other pens won't do crap, not even other Cross pens. It just is not something that is going to happen with pressure alone. The digitization requires the transmitter inside the pen, and it's actually able to transmit through up to half an inch of paper. It's more than I was expecting. And it can also, you can press in the tip of the pen acting as a click of sorts to navigate through menus and things on the tablet itself. And if you lost the pen, it's $80 for just that on its own.

But yeah, considering that even entry level ballpoint pens from Cross are $30 to $40 and then go way up from there, so. 80 bucks for a smart one, I guess that's fine. Overall, the press seemed to think it was fine too. In fact the press you could say was imPRESSed, with rather positive coverage and previews and reviews, if understandably cautious. You know, the drawbacks they noted were things like no graphics recognition, no infrared transfers, just serial. Low memory, no pen storage, no templates for filling out forms.

But despite that, there was buzz and excitement as seen in this episode of Computer Chronicles, "The Best of Comdex 1998." - [Stewart] This new gadget called the CrossPad is the ultimate answer to merging the world of paper and pen and the world of the PC. Jim, this is another magic trick here, what you guys are doing. Let me try to explain.

This is just a plain old pad of paper that you bought from an office supply store, right? - [Jim] Absolutely. An eight and a half by 11 pad of paper. - [Stewart] There's no electronics in here. - [Jim] None whatsoever.

- [Stewart] So you're writing on a piece of paper. Now let me ask you, how does this clipboard know what you're writing? I take it this is not pressure sensitive. You're going through a hundred sheets of paper here? - [Jim] Right. What it does is the pen actually has a radio transmitter in addition to an ink cartridge. - [Stewart] Jim, I love it. Thank you very much. - [Jim] Thank you.

- So y'know, looking back at the coverage right as it was coming out and about to come out, it seemed like it might do well. And the company continued to show confidence in it the whole way along. Even introducing a smaller six by nine inch XP model starting in October of 1998.

However, this thing fizzled out fast on the market resulting in a shareholder securities fraud lawsuit, Aldridge v. A.T. Cross Corp. Charging that officers of Cross used accounting and sales tricks to mask losses and true sales trends of their PCG products like the CrossPad. As I said, Cross was really confident in this thing publicly and they had stated expectations of at least $25 million in profitable sales in 1998. But to quote the lawsuit, reality did not keep pace with these projections.

By late 1999, the CrossPad development had reportedly ceased and that year the company lost $24.3 million and Aldridge alleged in his suit that statements made by the company management were misleading as well as not following proper revenue recognition practices specifically claiming that the company employed sales strategies like price protection, take backs, and channels stuffing without properly disclosing any of it to the public or to shareholders. It was a big old mess.

And these things were found at steep discounts, including this one the original owner purchased in 1999 around when Cross ceased development. Though the device was still sold in stores for a couple more years, and IBM carried the torch a tad longer in the form of the ThinkScribe. Now this was included as part of the ThinkPad TransNote in 2001 and was effectively a CrossPad bolted onto the side of a $3,000 laptop. But, that didn't last long either with IBM announcing its discontinuation in February of 2002.

And that's another topic! So, let's go ahead and get our CrossPad open and see what's in that box. [smooth jazz tunes] [gentle unboxing vibes] First thing in here is the tablet, the CrossPad itself. And yeah, it's not a terribly thick device or anything like that. It's not too far off in dimensions from a legal pad-sized thing that it's meant to take, considering it's effectively a drawing tablet with some memory and smarts installed. Yeah, pretty sweet for the late nineties.

We'll get back to that here in a sec but there's a bunch more in here. Beginning with several ads for various things. We've got a Day-Timer Organizer program I'm sure businessy CrossPad users would love. A PCMCIA card serial port. If you don't have one on your laptop, which is unlikely, or I guess more likely if your Palm Pilot is already using it.

Yeah, use both that and the CrossPad. You are doing so much business. We also have an ad for the other CrossPad.

So this is the XP model. Pretty much, yeah, actual size there. Ah, about an inch smaller.

Yeah, that one actually had a pen holder. Convenient indeed. Much envy. Got a fold out cheat sheet for shortcuts for things, registration card, EULA, mleh-mm-bleh-m-bleh, boring! And also the user guide, which is [sighs] very IBM. This is all very IBM-esque. I mean as you'd expect being a lot of IBM product type things going on.

Even though it's not really IBM, but, you know! We do have a checklist here of things to do. Make sure you do it properly. This manual's pretty substantial. Really a lot going on here.

Just taking you through mostly training to be honest. Almost 90 pages of stuff. And you have these right here in sort of a kind of a legal pad style and these flip over like this. This is an orientation guide, they call it. But we will show some of that here in a sec.

This is really training for the handwriting. And you slide this into the CrossPad itself to do that. And then this right here is another one, supplemental stuff. But yeah, there's so many things. Again, we'll go over that here in a sec with the trainer.

This is just all training. Feels... like homework! So we have the serial cable here, rather PDA-like connection there on the end. But yeah, just standard RS-232 9-pin serial.

We have the Ink Manager from IBM which is what really gives it almost all of its smarts. Yeah it's version 1.5a, just a single CD-ROM of that. There is an archive of this on archive.org. And then we have the pen itself, the CrossWriter. Very much your standard Cross ballpoint pen.

Nothing too crazy going on in here. Not one of the fancier ones either. Although it does have this sort of faux diamond type of thing in the end there. And yeah, I do have another one. They all seem to have come with that. This is, that's all you get.

It is a normal pen except for the inside upper portion. So there is the transmitter electronics go right in there. And then on this side is where it takes a quadruple-A battery . And this was a a bit of a thing.

Went to grab one at Walmart. Nope. Target, nope. Ingles, nope. Walgreens, nope. Eventually found some at Bulbs and Battery, Battery Plus Bulbs, whatever the heck man, one of those kind of places, thank goodness. And it just goes in there and powers it for a very long time.

Let's see, how much actually? Six to 12 months average life for the pen. Three to four months for the notepad on triple-As. Which on that note, [giggles at unintended pun] is the CrossPad.

So yeah, the batteries go up here in a satisfying way. [battery bay pops and slides out] [chuckle of satisfaction] So there we go! Four AAAs power that, and that's all that is. Just a neat little tray thingy. You also have another tray down here and that is for the additional ballpoint pen ink cartridges. There you go. Easy enough to swap out.

I assume you can still get these. Also got this right here for the connection for the serial port and I don't remember what that is. "Recharger port for optional rechargeable battery system." Well, I don't have that. Anyway, you can see the other things that are on here.

Not a lot really, 'cuz the majority of what you do is all done on this neat little LCD. Go ahead and power that on and yeah, that's what you get at the beginning. It is now ready to go. So it's showing the page that you're going to be digitizing. You can go forward and backward with pages. It's gonna ask a blank page or not 'cuz we're not actually inputting anything.

But, that goes back. This one right here, which is a menu. So do things like upload, inserting bookmarks, view time, erasing and training mode, which is all those supplemental... books we had.

Yeah, that's just really basic stuff. Really the most important one is the Upload Ink there. And then this one is really cool too.

We'll have to demonstrate that in a bit. We'll dive in deeper. Let's get some paper going. So it's just your standard... thingy of paper, legal pad. And the idea is that it slides into the slot up here at the top. You don't need to do this.

Like you can just set paper on top but it helps if it's sort of held in place. And there you go. Fits snugly and uh, yeah. We are now able to write on here. And you can see, anytime we're pressing down in writing there, that right there shows that it's recognizing it.

So, eh nothing, nothing, nothing. There you go. Eh! All right! Well, let's set this up with the computer side of things and get the full nineties CrossPad experience and all of its oddities.

[jazz music fades] Alrighty! So, everything's all installed here on this Windows 95 PC. Bit of a different angle here, but, you know. Pad. We'll be going back and forth between this and what's on screen through a capture. But the setup process was a simple one. After the IBM Ink Manager's on your hard disk, you're asked about your handwriting preferences.

Choose Print if you never join characters. Uppercase, if you're an all-caps chaotic type. Or Script, if you have a more freestyle approach. And at this point the software is ready to go. So, just plug in the serial cable into a free COM port and then the other side into the CrossPad itself, and then point the program towards that.

And since this particular CrossPad was already used 24 years ago, it actually had a bunch of pages still in memory. So as long as that program is running and the serial is all connected up you just press Menu on the device itself. So it says Upload Ink, then press the checkmark to verify, and there you go. The transfer process commences. Grabbing all the ink data and displaying it on your PC as a notebook file in the program. Yeah, the 18 pages that were on here that took up just a little over half a megabyte.

And once that transferred you could see there were all kinds of handwritten business notes and drawings in here. A solid representation, really, of what the CrossPad was designed for. And unfortunately though, without the original owner's orientation files on the PC itself, we can't take advantage of all the handwriting recognition and text conversion stuff since the program has to be trained for each individual user.

And that's where the orientation paperwork stuff comes in with those legal pad sized documents that came in the box that take you through that whole process one page at a time. And each page contains instructions and five lines of text to copy by hand, with the idea here being to get a wide assortment of characters, words, and phrases jotted down so the Ink Manager training program can look at it and figure out your handwriting. Really it doesn't know a whole lot of what to do, otherwise, it just sees random scribbles and it'll do its best.

But it really needs to be trained first, and the more you complete, the better it becomes at knowing what you've written. And yeah, I did all this earlier as each orientation session took me about 25 minutes to complete and it took the LGR Megaluminum Monster here about five minutes to process each batch of handwriting. And that's that! So, the very most basic process of getting stuff going on the CrossPad here, is once it is powered on and situated somewhere it's not gonna get stupid... I have it powered on. And so I just got a blank page here.

It doesn't matter what kind of paper's on there. But as long as it's not over half an inch thick, we're good. We don't even really need ink. Just need the pen working with the battery. So it's set to page one here that is the first page we'll be digitizing and then you can just start writing or drawing as normal.

And you know what? Don't even matter if the ink is fully showing or coming off on the paper there, it doesn't really care. Like I can go super, super light, you know, right here and as long as it's showing that it's getting that information, then it's fine. So you can slide the pen around.

You can sort of hover the pen over that. It's not gonna just, ooh, see that it's inputting things. No, it has to be pressing it down to paper. And again, it doesn't even matter if there's ink coming off on there. It just sort of, as long as it's pressing in and that radio transceiver is doing its thing, then it's good.

Let's go ahead and do a transfer. So, Upload Ink. Yes, that starts and there we go. It is moving over to a capture. That's what we got and it's exactly what is on the paper just with more clean lines and everything. And there again is no variance and light key.

The thickness of the lines, or you can't do shading or smudging or anything like that. Yeah it's just either on or off, effectively, which is really good for doing text of course. Honestly, the quality and the reliability of what you get from going from that to that you know back and forth is just really effective for what it's setting out to do. I was impressed the first time I saw this.

Really beats the pants off of like, using a tablet PC from the 90s. Now of course you can't just, you know, draw on here and like... immediately get anything on the screen. You need to do that transfer.

But when you do, yeah, let's just append new notes. There you go. It just appears on screen after you do that. So, like in theory here, I could just get rid of this sheet of paper entirely and it's still showing page one. Well now all of a sudden we've got this other sheet of paper, all you see is X's here.

Oh, I didn't remember to change the page on the thing itself. Well now, we've got X's just on top of our other page. Oops, too bad. So anyway, that's effectively how it works. And, you know that does mean there's some limitations.

But as long as you understand those limitations, it makes a lot of sense. Like for instance, I was just sort of freehand drawing a Cool Crab here and scribbling that down last night and yeah it's had some like light shading and darker lines and thicker bits here and there and little, you know, variations going on. So let me move back to what that looks like.

And you can see here, with that digitized, again, it's just lines that are all the same width but almost gives a like a coloring book effect. I'm especially thinking of when you take something like Print Shop Deluxe and ask it to render its graphics in coloring book mode. It just does that. It's just straight-up line art.

That being said, if you want to take some of these after the fact and start adjusting things then you can select what you want to adjust go here to the ink, and then you have some style options. So we can change the width, make it thicker. We can change the color to whatever you want to. And, there we go. Now we have a red, thicker Cool Crab.

Although it didn't select this one line because it went off the screen a bit. So, yeah, you like select that and you can change that style. [chuckles] It still didn't select that one.

Eh, it's a little weird sometimes. But, anyway, really not ideal for any kind of drawings or graphics. It is optimized for text first and foremost as should be, no surprise.

It's not a Wacom tablet or any other kind of graphics tablet, exactly. It's made for boring business people. [paper ripping and crumpling] So, let's just do a little bit of writing. This...

is... a test... of the thing.

Gotta have some larger text, why not? And then, I don't know, a little thingy here just for graphics. Mm, graphics, a 3D cube. Alright, transfer that over. Upload that.

And there we go. Pretty instantaneously on the screen there. So let's see how it does in terms of reading that text.

And again, I have trained this a bit. So, recognize. And there we go. It actually did pretty well, except for the F in 'farts.' [laughs in broken recognition] But it got "this is a test of the thing" and then it thought it was like, l - Acts. Yeah to be honest, I haven't done too much of the capitalization training.

There is a full section of like another 12 pages of just capitals. I haven't done much of that yet. But I did plenty of mixed case training and it's really good at recognizing my handwriting, for better or worse.

It's, I don't know. Again, I'm impressed with this thing. For what it's trying to do, it's straight up doing it. Especially with the more information you give it in terms of training.

It just does its job and does it pretty darn well. And then, you know, here's there's another really cool thing. So, check this out. If we go to, let's see, insert a bookmark if you want to, yeah, have it searchable later on you can bookmark this page which is just the digital page number.

Or, even cooler I think, you have this right here which is a circle keyword to be selected or tap again for bookmark. So, if we want to have a keyword test... you just circle that... and now we have this popping up, it says, keyword confirmation, the word 'test' that we've circled on the paper is now right there. And so, if we want to search by keywords, we can do it.

So. [laughs] these are some other keywords that I've had before. Fine, box, and heck. But yeah, here's the, the 'test' keyword.

It'll bring up this page and highlight it in blue. Where did I have 'heck?' Oh yeah, right here. Had a little drawing of a coffee mug and I put heck yeah, so it found that page in my notebook.

This is really darn cool, man. I don't know why, but it is. Yeah, for 400 nineties dollars, it better be impressive. And it is! Of course, one of the other really big selling points was just being able to select handwritten text and it's just effectively OCR'd on the fly. So you can copy and paste it as text into other programs like that. Same thing with any graphics or images or just whatever you put on there.

You can paste that as an image into another program and then export it, save it, do whatever the heck you want. You can also just edit things and get rid of them and write them on screen to make it hopefully work a little bit better with the recognition. Nope, it didn't know what to do with that. "It RIT J." Man, that made it worse.

Well anyway! [taps tablet] Like yeah, just looking through the other things on here. Pretty much shown every bit of this. So, that's really mostly it, you know. It just lasts a really long time on those batteries.

You get a bunch of battery life, way more than you would on a tablet or a laptop or PDA. Well, maybe not more than a PDA. I don't know.

Probably! It doesn't have much of a display at all. Right? That being said, I can very much understand... why this maybe didn't sell very well at first, until all the discounts started coming in because expensive is what it was. 400 bucks on launch. But like I said, it ended up getting discounted so quickly that it started making sense, but by the time it started making sense they were no longer interested in developing it and then the lawsuits happened and eh, which really does make this an Oddware type experience, I think. So yeah, that's the CrossPad.

I think it's pretty darn neat for what it is... with a lot of caveats. A lot of ellipses being like "neat," you know. To a point. Yeah, that's about it for the CrossPad on Oddware. And, computers! They sure are neat.

And devices like this, I really enjoy taking a look at 'em. Especially because it's just so outside of anything I experienced back in the late nineties. In a way, it's really still quite impressive just the way that it transmits through the paper and I don't know, it's just kind of cool to play with. That being said, I do wonder if this really made sense at $400 for the type of business person we've been talking about throughout this video.

Your executives and lawyers, and doctors or whoever else. The fact that you have to train this so much to get it to recognize your handwriting which is really like the biggest selling point. It's really a pain.

And then you have to do it for anybody else in the office. Your assistant or secretary, whoever. They also have to have their handwriting trained and go through that whole same process. And then there are all the other little limitations and irks and things like nowhere to store the pen, no external memory or expandable memory and the fact that it just kind of does this and that's it. It's like, there's PDAs and tablets and drawing graphics things and other pen devices.

There's so many other ways. Scanners that you could just take your regular paper and digitize that way. Or have somebody in your office digitize it. I don't know. It's an interesting device and idea and I think there maybe was a place for it.

I just don't know exactly what that place would've been. So if you ever saw this in an office back then or had one yourself, maybe you ran across one when it was cheap and actually had one at home, I'd be curious what your use case was. But you know, considering everything that we've said it's still just really cool to just, goes through all the paper and there it is, just digitized. It's a fun feeling to mess around with.

I hope that you enjoyed watching me do just that here on Oddware. [jazz tunes intensify] And if you did enjoy this episode, then check out my other Oddware things I have covered in the past and will continue to do so in the future. As well as other LGR things always in the works. And as usual, thanks for watching!

2023-02-05 14:12

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