Magical. That’s the term Apple has been using to whip people into an iPad frenzy. “We’re excited for customers to get their hands on this magical and revolutionary product”, said Steve Jobs in the announcement press release. It may seem like an odd choice words – after all, this is technology not sorcery – but it’s a term that does seem to fit the very best kind of gadget; the kind of gadget which appears so clever and so well thought out that its operation befuddles even the most tech-savvy among us and leaves us suspecting wizardry. Now, what exactly does this have to do with a smartpen? Well, the theory is simple: you use a ‘smart’ pen that houses a tiny camera set behind its ink tip to write in a special notebook where the paper is covered in a pattern of tiny dots. When your notetaking is done you dock the pen to your computer and it copies across a digital version of your doodlings. Should you want an even more accurate recording of a meeting or lecture than your written words can convey you simply tap the ‘Record’ button printed alongside a host of other controls running along the bottom of every page in the notebook, and the smartpen starts recording the audio – tagging it automatically to whatever is being written or drawn at that time. Want to listen back to your recording? Just tap the note to replay that portion of audio through the pen’s built-in speaker (or through headphones plugged into the top of the pen). The whole experience is so simple and quickly becomes so natural that you’ll soon forget the technology behind it. So does all this feel magical? Almost. But what tips it over the edge into truly arcane territories are the tiny details that you don’t even notice at first. The cleverest of these is the way in which, as you repeatedly dock your pen, your notebook is re-created page for page. Flip back through the pages of the paper book and add a note to something you wrote a couple of days ago and the digital version of the page will be amended accordingly the next time you dock the pen. It even automatically recognises individual pads -– use a different one for multiple projects and the right notes will be synced back to the correct notebook. The simplicity is stunning. After all, most of the time you’re just writing with a pen on paper. The technology gets out of your way and you’re left with the most natural notetaking duo there is – a simple pad of paper and a pen. Where it differs though is that your journal is backed up digitally on your computer, safe from loss, always at hand and searchable. Yes, searchable. At least, that is, if your handwriting is on the legible side of tidy, and even then it isn’t always perfect (which is maybe why Livescribe doesn’t shout about the feature as loudly as you’d expect). When it does work, however, you quickly realise that the prospect of being able to search through every note you ever make in seconds is a very good reason to part with £130. It also raises a couple of very good questions; the first being, if it can isolate words to search for, why can’t it convert your handwriting into editable, copy-andpastable text? Why can’t you sit on the train on your way into work, jotting down an email into your notebook and then, when you get into the office, dock your pen and have your notes synced into your digital notebook as editable text for you to select, copy and paste into your email software? The answer is you can, but only after you have coughed up another $30 for extra software. This gives rise to the second question; is this an example of truly stunning technology that has run out of time? Why carry a pen and paper when you could carry an iPad, or you already carry iPhone? And if the answer is that you prefer old-fashioned notebooks to the hit-and-miss thumb tapping of Apple’s onscreen keyboard then spare a minute and quickly google ‘Microsoft Courier’ to see what h
appens when the tablet computer revolution we’re about to enter meets the moleskine. If, even after that, you’d still prefer the feel of ink on paper but would also like your notes on your Mac, then the Pulse smartpen comes highly recommended. But for everyone else, Livescribe has some serious work to do if it’s going to keep the pen and paper approach relevant in a rapidly evolving market. Luckily, with at least one iPhone app in the works, there’s hope for what is a truly magical piece of technology.