February 14, 2010

When your pen can't hold a charge

Pen and paper. I've spent years looking for and trying to create a better solution. As a consumer electronics developer, I've realized that replacing pen and paper might be the most difficult job we'll ever tackle. Why?

  1. Unlimited flexibility. Whatever you want to capture, whenever, in whatever format is best for you, pen and paper do it. "It's a blank sheet of paper" is a powerful statement
  2. High durability
  3. Very low cost. Pens are nearly free (if you travel) and paper is incredibly inexpensive
  4. Wonderful form factor. Whatever form factor you like, paper comes in that form factor. You can even make your own custom form factors

The biggest challenge facing pen and paper is recall. I used to have a cluster of engineering notebooks filled with notes going back almost 20 years. I often ran into situations where I knew the answer to a question was in one of those books. Which one and where? Heck of I know. I digitized those books, but the recall problem was nowhere closer to being solved.

18 months ago, I was so excited to get a Livescribe pen. This digital pen, running Java no less, automatically digitized everything I wrote. With appropriate tagging, I could even make recall easier in these digitized notes. Livescribe also stores audio recorded when I took the notes, though this feature was less useful in business meetings where audio recording is often discouraged.

Livescribe does everything that it advertises, but now my pen doesn't hold a charge. Let me repeat this. My pen isn't holding a charge. What's wrong with that sentence? Nothing, until you compare it to the competition. Livescribe failed to compete with pen and paper's features, as listed above:

  1. Unlimited flexibility - Livescribe figured this out, with a variety of notebook form factors and the ability to print your own paper
  2. High durability - Paper being equal between the two, a standard pen is far more durable, lasts longer, doesn't run out of battery life (temporarily or permanently)
  3. Very low cost - I thought I lost my Livescribe on an overseas flight, and realized that losing $200 pens wasn't a habit I could afford to sustain
  4. Wonderful form factor - A pen with a battery, no matter how well engineered, is going to have a larger form factor than a standard pen

I think Livescribe is a great product. If you share notes, it is a fabulous product. But it competes with a product of near infinite flexibility and very low cost. As my Livescribe's life comes to an end, I'll be replacing it with a Fischer space pen and Moleskin notebook. In the end, I'll trade real time digitizing for a $170 price break, infinite battery life, and the peace of mind that comes from not being worried about losing my pen, which I'm apt to do.

Of course, as a CE developer, I've been pondering automatic watches and wondering why Livescribe even needs a battery. It only needs power when you are writing, and when you are writing, then pen is in motion?! Hope springs eternal ;-)

The pen is truly mightier than the sword (and Livescribe?)

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