Can you read your own handwriting? If so, congratulations. In this keyboard-powered age, 95 per cent of people cannot decipher their handwriting without the aid of a police graphologist, a psychic and some psychotropic drugs. (The other 5 per cent rely on remembering what they meant.) How then could any technology contrive to turn our scrawl into intelligible words? The task looks all the more daunting when various variables come into play. Even that hallmark of human identity, the signature, can fluctuate wildly. If yours is anything like mine, it changes in accordance with stress levels, sobriety and a slew of external factors such as the position of the moon in relation to Mercury. But the technology meant to do the job does exist. It is called handwriting recognition, or HR, that abbreviation also insultingly applied to people. The technology 'works' in a variety of ways, depending on who is pushing it. But essentially it converts what you have written into digitised pictures, then interprets them through fancy techniques such as logic-based shape recognition. Typically, HR mimics old-fashioned handwriting 'technology' so familiar we scarcely register it. HR physically consists of a stylus (an electronic Biro) and a touch-sensitive surface provided by a tablet PC, personal digital assistant (PDA) or other handheld device. On paper, HR is a godsend. Goodbye Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and the sheer hassle of pecking at those plastic, dust-prone buttons whose qwerty format should have gone the same way as Betamax. On paper, HR should mean we can ditch our keyboards and write in a more natural way. It ranks as one of the crucial technologies that will determine the eventual success or failure of electronic handheld devices ignored by many in favour of traditional alternatives such as the Filofax, which have the advantage of being unbreakable. HR dates back to Newton. That is, Apple's Newton technology, which arrived in 1993 boasting touch-sensitive liquid crystal display screens and insanely complex software. Because Newton never became fast or reliable enough, Apple scrapped it in 1998. Maybe Apple did the right thing. So far, HR has earned about as much respect as dictation software, which reproduces words about as fast as a drunken hunt-and-peck typist. So far, even the best handwriting recognition systems demand devotion to the software's idiosyncrasies, which usually means abandoning anything close to your natural handwriting style. HR 'needs tweaking', 'sucks', 'sucks wind' and even 'sucks rats', as some of the strange, angry voices in the Web's babble put it. Just try using a Palm OS device reliant on the Graffiti input system, a 'unistroke' system of inputting characters with the exception of the letter X, which requires two strokes. Intuitive it isn't. For instance, an upside down capital L represents the letter T. True, jogged by a lawsuit from Xerox, which claimed patent infringement, Palm has just scrubbed Graffiti and replaced it with... Graffiti 2. Based on Jot from Communication Intelligence, the new technology imitates more natural input. Forget about writing an upside down L to depict a T. In Graffiti 2, a T can be written using the conventional crossbar. No manual required, cheerleaders say. They omit to mention that the punctuation involves familiar aggravation: an upstroke instead of a dot, for instance. Is it any wonder that consumers are choosing handhelds with keyboards? When Handspring offered two handheld models - one with a keyboard and one with Graffiti - more than 90 per cent of buyers reportedly chose the former. Make no mistake: HR has a long way to go before the stylus is mightier than the keyboard and the pen. Confused by computer jargon? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions.