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Pen Computer Maker Draws a Bead on Mac Users

By John P. Mello Jr. MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Aug 17, 2009 4:00 AM PT

For more than two decades, technologists have spent considerable cognitive power trying to marry the power of the pen and the computer. Up to now, their efforts have largely ended up in the gutter of a dead end-street for gadgets.

Pen Computer Maker Draws a Bead on Mac Users

Those past failures haven't deterred Livescribe from rebirthing a pen-as-computer product.

Moreover, the San Francisco company's Pulse Smartpen (US$149.95 to $199.95) appears to be gaining some traction among both Mac and PC computer users.

In fact, the gizmo has proven so popular with Macsters that the firm cut a deal at the end of last month with French company Vision Objects to create an OS X version of its handwriting-to-text software for the Pulse called "MyScript for Livescribe" ($29.95).

"Handwriting-to-text transcription has been one of the most frequently requested applications from our Mac user community," Livescribe Senior Director of Marketing Eric Petitt stated when the deal was unwrapped.

"Mac users are more willing to use digital pens than other users," Vision Objects Marketing Manager Anne-Sophie Bellaud told MacNewsWorld. "The Mac is a very important market for us."

Pen-Audio Combo

Like its kin before it, the Pulse Smartpen allows you to write or draw on specially designed paper and transfer those scribblings into a computer as image files. With MyScript, the words in those files can be converted into text.

Livescribe's pen also contains a digital audio recorder. It's great for taking notes at lectures and meetings.

Livescribe Desktop 1.0 for Mac
(click image to enlarge)

What's more, it links sound and scribbling together in real time. You can tap on a word in a note and what was being said at the moment will be played through the pen. On the desktop, you can click on a word for a similar effect.

While MyScript is needed to turn handwriting into text, the pen itself has its own handwriting recognition software. So pages dumped from the pen to a computer can be searched for words without leaving Lifescribe's desktop application.

Cool Technologies

Asked why the Pulse Smartpen appears to be gaining a measure of success unattainable in the past by this kind of product, Livescribe Senior Product Line Manager Maureen Keating explained that technology has finally caught up to the expectations for the category.

"There's been a clear demand in the marketplace for these kinds of embedded devices in an everyday object," she told MacNewsWorld, "but like many things coming to fruition right now, I think technology is coming together so you can fit into something the size of a pen some really cool technologies."

Earlier computer pens were cumbersome, difficult to use and expensive, she noted. "We're doing well because we have the right combination of features and price," she added.

Livescribe has also apparently tapped into an unforeseen enthusiasm in the Mac market for its gadget.

Livescribe was concerned that entering the Mac game eight months after its initial Windows-only release would cannibalize some of its market, Keating confessed.

"But we found there's been no cannibalization at all, and it's increased our total market space by about 30 percent," Keating observed.

Targeting College Crowd

One of Livescribe's important target markets, she noted, is higher education, especially freshmen and sophomores in college.

"They're in a situation where they are in these large lecture halls, and they're kind of overwhelmed by information," she said. "By capturing audio and having that synchronized with their notes, we're finding that it really gives students a competitive advantage over their peers."

However, the popularity of the gadgets among students was questioned by Paul Saffo, a distinguished visiting scholar at the Stanford Media-X research network in Palo Alto, Calif.

"I've never seen a Smartpen on campus," he told MacNewsWorld.

"Students don't write," he said. "Students type."

"I've been teaching on this campus for four years," he continued, "and while my sampling of students is statistically small, most students have no problem opening up their laptops and typing in their notes as they go."

Livescribe's Dilemma

As successful as the Pulse Smartpen has been in this stage of its development, it will most likely remain a niche product, according to Saffo, who is also a Smartpen user.

The device, he argued, is trapped in a dilemma. It requires people who love paper and pens to use only Livescribe paper and pens.

"That instantly eliminates anyone who is passionate about Moleskines or fountain pens or a favorable disposable pen," Saffo maintained.

"So you're going to need a customer who loves pen and paper but doesn't love it so much that they're unwilling to give up their favorite pad of paper and pen to switch to Livescribe pen and paper," he said.

"The trick with all of these types of things is," he added, "how do you bridge analog to digital without requiring a behavioral change that cripples the thing?"

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