Jag Venugopal's Blog

October 20, 2009

Dragging paper into the digital age

Filed under: Digital Living — Jag @ 2:55 pm
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True to my reputation as Inspector Gadget, I recently bought a Pulse Smartpen from Livescribe.

The Pulse Smartpen is a little contraption that writes on special paper and does two things ordinary pens can’t… it captures handwriting digitally, and optionally, captures an audio recording that is synchronized with the writing. It is a brilliant idea that will appeal to a whole class of users in business and education, provided that some issues are addressed.

The first issue I can perceive is the legality of recording a conversation and people’s comfort with their voices being recorded. This being a state subject, different states have different laws regarding this. The state where I work (Rhode Island) appears to allow it, provided that people have no reasonable expectation of privacy when the recording is being made (e.g. in a business meeting). The state where I live (Massachusetts) forbids this, unless all parties agree to the recording being made. Additionally, people are sensitive about their words being recorded, and may not give their approval for such recording.

If both these objections are overcome, (say by far thinking managers, who make it OK to use the smartpen in meetings for their department), the pen is an excellent business tool that kicks corporate notetaking and minuteing a few notches higher.

A second issue is that the smartpen can only work with specially printed paper. The software uses a minute grid of dots to help it discern the position of the pen on the page. Livescribe sells notebooks with this special dot pattern (“dot-paper“) for a reasonable price (good paper quality, not that much more expensive than generic notebooks). Livescribe also provides a way for users to print letter-sized smartpaper by themselves. This requires a 600-DPI color printer capable of interpreting PostScript. One can print to PCL-only printers, such as the HP range commonly found in offices, with some kludging. In general, there should be no need to do this, because Livescribe’s notebooks are inexpensive and convenient (and for those who have Amazon Prime, shipping is fast and at no extra cost).

By far the biggest impediment I foresee to the success of the smartpen is the complicated technology licensing that goes with the dot-paper. This is licensed from a company called Anoto, based in Sweden, that also has a US office in the Boston area. Anoto has licensed this technology to other companies as well. Most of these licensees are system integrators that provide turnkey forms solution to businesses, along with the pen. Anoto makes money off the royalties from the technology, as well as a cut per sheet of dot-paper.

Some of Anoto’s other partners (e.g. Talario) sell a solution that could be the killer application for Livescribe’s Pulse. This solution provides the ability to print any office document with a dot-paper pattern behind it, effectively enabling the document to be used with the smartpen. An example would be to print a Microsoft Word document or an Excel document, take it to a meeting, annotate it in the meeting, and upload the document with its annotations back to the PC for recordkeeping and emailing. Unfortunately, I do not see this particular application showing up on the Pulse anytime soon… for one Anoto would not want to kill off its other partners’ businesses. For another, Anoto charges the Talario end-user a royalty of 10 cents per page for the dot pattern. I believe that this is excessively expensive, and would significantly hinder the market acceptance of the tool. A student could conceivably print her professor’s lecture notes on dot paper, and then directly annotate them if she could do so free of royalties. At 10 cents per page, it would not be cost effective. It’s similar to Microsoft selling you Windows, and then charging you a fee per mouse-click.

If Anoto were to allow royalty-free printing, and if instead it derived royalties solely from each pen sold, I think in time that it could significantly expand the smartpen market into the business and education markets (all the way from school through university). In the aggregate, it would make a lot of money from the initial pen sale, and subsequent replacement sales to a vastly expanded market.  As an aside, I would be interested in seeing if a smart software developer figures a way of printing a bootleg pattern without using Anoto’s software. That would probably infringe on Anoto’s patents. But, as RSA Corporation’s experience with early bootleg PGP versions would indicate, it is impractical to sue every single end-user.

Nevertheless, students or professionals who like to take notes on paper would be well served by the inexpensive device. Head on over to Livescribe and order your own. Before you do that, look around the Internet for coupon codes (I found one for 25% off in September 2009).

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1 Comment »

  1. I also think the Livescribe pen is a brilliant tool, but still find that the best use for the Anoto technology is actually for commercial systems deployment where users replace their manual data processing with a digital pen. Commercial deployment means customisation of all areas to make it totally fit with the needs of the business, the consumer based products like Livescribe suffer from trying to `fit’ to as many broad needs as possible.

    Anoto has a lot of investment to recover, I think that’s why the royalties still remain quite high. They have been changing their policies in recent years to collecting upfront payment as opposed to recurring licensing, so I think this will be a matter that will be resolved in the not too distant future.

    Comment by Brad — October 26, 2009 @ 8:11 am | Reply


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