Pen Computing Is Still About the Pen

By | June 4, 2007


I’ve always loved the idea of pens that work with your computer, either transcribing our hand-written notes, or faithfully reproducing our drawings on our computer, but the promise has always dwarfed the reality. Is LiveScribe different?

LiveScribe, launched at last week’s D conference, differs from previous digital pens in several ways: instead of merely trying to capture what you write, it captures what it hears, and is able to link what is written with what is recorded. Tap on a word you’ve written and it will jump to that part of the recording. Write something and have the pen translate it into Japanese or Swedish [sic].

All of this sounds amazing. It’s the sort of thing that has the potential for revolutionizing the way we work. Its inventor, Jim Marggraff, says “we can see this changing the world.” Even my colleague Walt Mossberg got so excited about it, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, he “was so determined to have the scoop on the pen, and to unveil it at his conference, Marggraff said, that [New Yorker’s Ken] Auletta (who was writing a profile of Mossberg and in the room when Marggraff was giving a demo) was not allowed to write about it.” Walt doesn’t get excited about stuff very often.

But what I find interesting is how hard it has been to get the pen– or paper-based computing thing to where we are now. LiveScribe, for example, is the vision of Marggraff, but also incorporates a lot of technology that came before. He himself was the inventor of the LeapPad (1999), “essentially a cross between a talking book and an educational videogame console,” in the words of a WIRED profile of Marggraff from 2005. It made LeapFrog, the company behind it, the fastest growing company in history.

Then Marggraff came up with the Fly, a kid’s version of LiveScribe, which used technology provided by Sweden–based Anoto, the company that developed the technology behind other pen– or paper-based computing systems, including Logitech’s own io Pen

By then the company’s fortunes had taken a serious dive, so a lot was riding on the Fly. Oddly, and I can’t find an explanation for this, Marggraff then quit the company and joined Anoto (before the WIRED article had actually hit the streets). A year later Marggraff again left to form LiveScribe, although Anoto remains a partner of LiveScribe, according to this press release. (Anoto helps develop and market the pen in return for cash and royalties. Hence the Swedish translation, I guess.)

So while there may seem to be a buzz about this product (and there should be; it’s got some great features) it’s actually just the latest offering in a series of innovations that, at least for the adult/professional market, has dazzled more than it has actually won over. For some reason pens aren’t as exciting to users as the idea of pens that do more. Walt may be excited by the product, and so am I. But I’ve learned that’s not always enough: journalists (well, me) have been excited by earlier incarnations of the digital pen and they don’t seem to have caught on either.

Why? I think it’s a few factors. Part of it is that all these products seem too fiddly, or at least require a change of habit. Another is Dependability: we need to know they’ll always work or we won’t trust them to do the job alone (recording interviews and writing notes are the sort of things you don’t want to mess up.) Thirdly, it’s because we’re weird about our pens: We either have pens we love and wouldn’t part with, or else we buy a particular brand we like by the truckload and lose them. In either case it’s because we like the way they write, and the ioPen and its cousins all failed to understand that, giving us just a basic Biro-type nib that doesn’t make us want to write. It’s like selling us a beautiful new laptop with a keyboard from WalMart.

So, my soapbox lesson for the day: Paper– or pen-based computing is a great notion, and may yet have its day, but developers need to understand that whatever the gizmo can do, it’s first and foremost a pen. (Like a smartphone, however snazzy, is first and foremost a phone.) So make it a great pen first, and then add the bells and whistles. Offer all sorts of different cartridge types and colored inks/gels. Make it a pleasure to doodle with, and then add the technology. Then we’ll grab a hold of the rest of the technology, and this time we may not let go.

2 thoughts on “Pen Computing Is Still About the Pen

  1. Nate Westheimer

    Function I want in a pen: as a blogger/writer/consultant, I’d love to have a smart way of quoting printed material utilizing a smart scanner (I know some pens exist with scanners, but they are very expensive and not “smart” in any way).

  2. Promotional Pens

    A great idea but the digital pen is still a long way off being perfected. It would be a great addition to a keyboard and mouse enabling users to personalise emails etc..


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