Livescribe Update

I last wrote about Livescribe on this blog in June 2009.

It is time for an update as there is a new version of the smart pen called the echo.

Robert Scoble has done video interviews with a user and with the founder, Jim Marggraff, who explained the new echo features.

The product has improved for digital note taking and now has pen applications.

Software limitations that still need to be overcome include Mac support for integrating documents as is provided in the Windows application and support for more modern web display technology in addition to Flash.

I see the livescribe smart pen as an example of the emerging new computer interfaces that use cameras (and in other cases projection) to extend the computer interface into the real world. There is lots of potential in this direction as these products are still in the early stages of capabilities.

Similar to the iPad or other innovative paradigm shifting new technology the question is how does this product improve upon more familar existing alternatives?

Two points of comparison are:

  • traditional pen and paper note taking
  • note taking and audio recording on an iPhone or iPad

The livescribe is a little less flexible than traditional pen and paper in that special paper must be used but it makes up for that in ways to better share and present the digitized notes. With pen and paper the alternative to get digitized notes would be to scan the notes and digitally record any audio. They wouldn’t be associated except as the final notes and complete recording. Livescribe has the advantage of syncing the notes and audio and being able to present the timeline so you can progressively reveal information and can go straight to the part you are interested in rather than all or nothing. This feature would be most important for longer recordings with many different parts.

With the iPhone or iPad you skip a step as you can capture the notes and audio digitally directly (using apps like penultimate, notes, and soundnotes) without an upload but you still don’t have the progressive presentation and notes/audio syncing. Also even with a stylus the precision on an iPad is not the same as the livescribe pen on its special paper.

Both of these comparisons are for note taking which doesn’t take into account the livescribe apps. Examples of apps include an interface builder, music player, calculator, and translator. The livescribe app store has fairly limited selection at this time especially when compared to the iphone app store but this should grow over time and the apps are affordable at a few dollars each.

In the end the value of the livescribe will depend on whether you can live with the current limitations in the software (which could be improved with updates) and how important note taking sharing and presentation are to you. If some of the apps are of interest that could be a bonus. If you are willing to wait a version with wireless connectivity is planned.

The livescribe echo is currently available in the Apple store for $169.95 (4 GB) or $189.95 (8GB).

Contrast the Old World to the New World of Computing

The iPad announcement has got people thinking about the future of computing and its implications. There is a lot of disagreement but it has got to be healthy that people are considering new possibilities. This debate is at a whole new level than the product management perspective of left brain product specs vs. right brain user experience that I wrote about in my product management blog (Magic or Specs?).


Old World Computing

Mark Pilgrim is nostalgic for the Old World of computing (Tinkerer’s Sunset) when computers came with a readily available command line and could be programmed easily in Basic. He speculates that there will be fewer programmers initiated with new computers where the programming is abstracted away so it is not as easy to tinker. In reality there are whole new levels to tinker at and there is still opportunities for programming in new ways. However, in the Apple model at least there is a structure that puts more controls on enforcing Apple’s views on consistency, quality, and the user experience. The debate and battle will go on for many years about what structure will win for development and end user delivery of value. The reputation of Android is that it provides a more open environment with fewer controls on programmer freedom. The issue is how to establish a platform that delivers quality to consumers while being open enough to let multiple parties add value and consumers to have choices. Who will have the best rules for their platform? This is yet to be determined but the era of old world computing where there was little structure and programmers could build their “world” from scratch has been coming to an end slowly but surely.


New World Computing

Steven Frame really nails the key attributes of this transition from old world to new world computing. A problem with innovation transition is that when a new product is introduced it usually hasn’t yet implemented all the new things to replace previous products all at once. The solution is not always to include a hybrid of old capabilities – sometimes there is a delay while other new capabilities are developed. Steven’s hybrid example is replacing the floppy disk with an optical disk drive. Apple is attempting something more ambitious in the mobile context by innovating in several areas at once:

  • file system
  • touch interface
  • software development and distribution
  • multitasking
  • data sharing
  • device ports and sensors
  • Let’s use multitasking as the example. The iPad has been ridiculed for taking the supposed backward step of not having multitasking on the iPhone and iPad. In the context of a mobile device is it better to have multitasking with performance issues and the need for the complexity of a kill task utility ala Android or to just temporarily have single tasking until a new multitasking capability can be implemented? New studies have shown that too much multitasking is detrimental to not just computer performance but human performance as well. Maybe what is needed is a new type of multitasking that may be more restricted but where the overall system works better. Could this be similar to the copy and paste feature that Apple delayed until they could implement it to their quality standards? In some cases it can be courageous and right to suffer the criticism until something can be done properly to avoid the confusion of an interim implementation that is clearly lacking. Apple may be applying a do it right or not at all approach.

    While the new capabilities are being developed, the feature limited new device needs to be focussed on a niche where it can be successful. Steve Jobs outlined these use cases in the iPad product announcement.


    This doesn’t mean that the iPad is intended as only a media consumer device. It is only a starting point and it is only a matter of time that Apple with its iLife history and third parties with their iPhone experience will undoubtably build out previous and new types of creative capabilities using the larger multitouch iPad interface.

    MacSparky’s Tablet Musings

    MacSparky has some musings on the upcoming tablet based on his previous experience with a Windows tablet that ultimately wasn’t successful because of the following hardware factors:

  • heavy,
  • large,
  • slow to boot,
  • ran extremely hot on my lap, and
  • the battery life was dreadful.
  • Many inventions have a history of precedents that didn’t work until there was finally enough breakthroughs to make them successfully. These breakthroughs aren’t always just better technology. To solve the problems listed won’t really be the breakthrough in my opinion. This is just eliminating “obvious” flaws.

    Equally important, in my view, is refining the concept to not try to do everything. It is not necessary to try to replace something else completely since people are willing to have specialized devices like the Kindle for example. I think Apple will come up with a more general purpose and flexible device than the Kindle but it should focus on a few things it is suited for well and to be able to complement (e.g. interwork) with other devices that are a better match for other use cases. There definitely is a sweet spot available between a single function specialized device and a general purpose computer.

    MacSparky provides a handy list of the use cases that a tablet could add value to with the right software implementation:

  • Reading/Research
  • Sharing
  • Organization
  • Surfing
  • Entertainment
  • Writing(?)
  • Editing Documents
  • The App Store
  • I particularly like the points about how annotating and editing are not the same as writing or volume text entry. The same could also be applied to creating a drawing/image from scratch vs editing or tweaking. The distinction here is between meeting the needs of:

    1. Prosumer content creators (primarily on desktops and laptops)

    2. Consumers of media and

    3. Prosumer enhancers and customizers

    by enabling the tablet to use unique features to work on the formats created previously on another device with different capabilities. If the tablet can do the last 2 out of 3 better than anything else that ain’t bad.

    This might be implemented by offering all the creation capabilities currently in iLife/iWork but “just” supplementing them with some multitouch features particularly best suited to the tablet in an innovative new way. It is not that difficult to imagine content being created on one device like a desktop or laptop but being annotated or otherwise being enhanced using multitouch on the tablet. The software challenge would be to make the features best suited to the device’s capabilities readily available without cluttering up the simplicity of the interface with features that should be possible but that won’t be used in that context on that device as often. This is the challenge for a Onenote+ (Oneupmanship?) software integration on the Apple tablet.

    It is also getting more common for people to have multiple monitors and touch pads. There is potential for a complementary monitor and touch pad for multimedia if the software and integration is done right. We are in the early days regarding how a touch interface could be used creatively for specialized applications to modify content in conjunction with or separately from other devices. I too (like Don McAllister) like the example of watching a screencast while following along on your main computer. Think of the educational opportunities!

    MacSparky references the PCWorld article that is already predicting that the Apple tablet won’t be successful for business. I think the main mistakes being made by the PCWorld article are the mindset that the tablet has to be a general purpose computing device to be valuable and underestimating the breakthroughs Apple will introduce.

    It’s going to be too expensive, it does things you don’t need to do, and it will add a messy layer of complication to your company’s computing infrastructure.

    Bill Snyder, PCWorld

    Prediction: John Gruber has already commented but he is going to have a lot more fun with this quote over on Daring Fireball once Apple announces its plans.

    I don’t doubt that the tablet will be premium priced, that is the Apple way, but their success has shown that a premium price doesn’t matter if you deliver the value. Review the use cases for a tablet done right – many people need to do these things especially if it is easier and they can be enabled/inspired to do more due to the ease of use. As for adding a messy layer of complication – well innovation is like that and how complicated it is depends on the software and integration which are yet to be seen.

    Apple didn’t wait this long to unleash this creation just to introduce another me too tablet. It won’t all be there on day 1 but I am hoping that the announcement will give enough hints about what is coming that it can spark a whole new round of speculation on the brave new future.

    Multi-touch Tablet Interface

    10/GUI has a video on a multi-touch interface which shows how the Apple tablet could work stand-alone or as an interface to a larger screen Mac computer. I have no idea if 10/GUI has any relationship with Apple.

    10/GUI from C. Miller on Vimeo.

    Apple will be introducing some kind of implementation of multitouch that extends beyond what the magic mouse gestures include. The following video shows some manipulations that a multitouch interface can do using the con10uum proposal. It doesn’t really show the practicality of the interface for getting things done, how well people will be able to learn the new gestures, and how ergonomics will be addressed by a tablet type screen. The video does stimulate thinking about the possibilities though.

    Con10uum project from 10/GUI is alive from gotactile on Vimeo.