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The pen is mightier than the keyboard

Lose the keyboard. Forget pen computing. Use a computerized ballpoint instead.

Call me old-fashioned, but I like to write using a pen. Not a stylus, you understand–a real pen leaving a trail of real ink on real paper. Give me the choice between picking up a glorified toothpick to scrawl on a plastic-coated screen smaller than my palm and having a substantial writing tool in one hand and a pad of paper in the other, and there’s no contest. It’s ink and dead trees all the way.

But there’s a fundamental problem with this approach. Once you’ve made paper notes, then what? More and more, the computer’s the epicenter of both office and personal organization. Everything you jot down while you’re out and about has to be typed in if it’s going to be “real”–a to-do item in Outlook, an e-mail, or the sketch of a killer new idea you need to share with the team. A pile of paper notes on the desk is, organizationally speaking, little more than a fire hazard.

So are we doomed to do our work twice, first in handwriting, and then on a keyboard? Not necessarily. Not with an Anoto digital pen, anyway.

This brainchild of the Swedish company Anoto became a bona fide computing platform this year. Logitech’s Anoto-based Io Pen records every pen stroke, stores up to 40 pages of it in onboard memory, then transfers it to your computer through a USB cradle. And such companies as 3M, Mead, Esselte, and FranklinCovey all have introduced supporting products to integrate paper notes into computer personal-organization software.

It’s not a pen, it’s a platform

Everything about Logitech’s Io pen is big. It’s about the size of a hot dog, but it’s curved and styled so that it fits neatly into the hand–even the hands of several second-graders who tried it out during field tests. It’s also a big deal. It’s the first input device in the United States that uses Anoto technology, and a product that corporations as big as Federal Express and as small as mine are getting into. But on the downside, the price scales the heights of Mont Blanc, too. It’s $199 for the pen, refills, software, and a starter pack of stationery.

Here’s how it works. You slip off the cap and turn on the pen. A slight vibration tells you it’s ready to receive data, and that’s when you begin to write. The technology is both simple and clever. Pressure on the pen point turns on a tiny digital camera underneath the ballpoint. As you write, the camera reads the motion of the pen and saves coordinates and time data in the pen’s memory–two sets of data that the pen uses to recreate the exact image of what was written. After a writing session, you slip the pen into a USB cradle, and the data’s downloaded into a reader application. The cradle also recharges the pen’s battery, a charge that lasts for days.

Other companies have released Anoto pens in Europe. Sony Ericsson’s Chatpen uses Bluetooth to beam writing data to cellular phones. But the Chatpen is available only in Europe for now.

Programming by paper

The key to the Anoto system is special stationery featuring what Anoto is calling digital paper. At first sight, an Anoto-style Cambridge pad, Post-it note, or Franklin Organizer refill looks like regular paper with Anoto logos and boxes in the top left and bottom right corners. The pages have a light gray cast to them, but otherwise, they seem normal.

But when you look at them closely, you’ll see a pattern of dots that the pen uses to identify the exact location on the page. Using this tiny grid, it handles tricky navigation (like when you lift the pen off the page to cross the Ts). The pattern also identifies individual pages, so that when you jot down your Prioritized Daily Task list for Monday the 26th in your Franklin Organizer, the notes appear on the right date when you upload the data to your PC.

Anoto-ready Post-It Notes are all printed with the same tiny matrix for the pen to read, as befits the random-access nature of Post-It Notes. Logitech packs a single book of the special sticky notes. You identify each note by checking off the box in the top left corner, and finish off the note by checking the bottom right box. When you dock the Io pen, it fires up 3M’s Digital Notes software and slaps the stick-em on your computer desktop.

Anoto digital paper is also a key to programming the system. To get your PC to read your handwriting, you fill out boxes on a special page in a Cambridge Digital Notebook that comes with the Logitech pen. There’s one for each letter, number, and important punctuation marks, including @, for reasons that will become obvious later.

In the Cambridge Digital Notebook, you can fill out whole pages of longer notes. At the foot of the page, there’s a classic data entry “comb” in which you fill out the subject, one letter to a box. You can also enter e-mail addresses and have all your writing and sketches sent as a JPEG attachment to the recipient of your choice (after checking the e-mail address twice for recognition errors, of course).

Pen in action

Out of the box, the Io pen comes with enough software to get you started. There’s a viewer that reads the .PEN files that download from the Io, and 3M’s online version of Post-It, which slaps canary yellow virtual paper all over your desktop. You can export your chicken scratchings to JPEG manually. Notes written to send as e-mails get shunted over to Lotus Notes or Microsoft Outlook and delivered as JPEG attachments.

But this is all rather freeform for someone who’s trying to get his life organized. For them, another purchase is necessary–FranklinCovey’s iScribe package. The near-cult of Benjamin Franklin, aided by the gospel according to Stephen Covey, has converted many a wastrel into a seven-habit-toting highly effective person. The $49.95 iScribe package includes software and an 18-month refill for one of those three-ring binders that were so popular among power people in the 1980s. It certainly fit my binder, after I’d taken out the unused pages from 1993. Most of the new pages are Anoto-style digital paper, though mysteriously the contact info pages were not there.

The software is a little more bizarre. It integrates with Outlook, but only sort of. Installing the software creates a View icon in Outlook that you click on to launch a JPEG picture of a Franklin Organizer page. After you’ve written your goals and appointments and achievements on the digital pages of the iScribe package and docked the Io pen, the drivers automatically convert the writing into JPEG format and merge it onto a JPEG of that day’s planner. But you can also use Outlook’s features as they were intended with e-mail sheets. It’s an odd package, for sure, but if you’re among the highly effective Franklin Planner crowd, it fits in with their doctrine of keeping your life all in one place. It’s just creating a backup of your life on your hard disk.

Pros and cons

There are some downsides to the digital pen phenomenon. One is the premium cost of stationery. Mead charges $9.99 for replacement spiral-bound Cambridge Digital Notebooks with 160 pages (that is, 80 sheets, mostly freeform pages for notes and e-mails, but the last fifth of the book is devoted to appointments and to-dos that can sync with either Lotus Notes or MS Outlook. Post-it Notes for Digital Pens sell for around $25 for a three-pack. That’s a hefty bill for stationery you intend to use daily.

Availability is another sticking point. The stationery isn’t at every big retail outlet at this stage, though it is available at Amazon.com, Staples.com, Logitech.com, and At-a-Glance.com (notwithstanding the occasional backorder).

A bigger problem is the handwriting recognition. Sure, my lousy penmanship is the stuff of legend (I’m often addressed as Mr. Cale or Mr. Wake after filling out registration forms in real life), but I was surprised at how unsuccessful the software was at interpreting my subject headings. I guess I’ll just have to live with attending “MEL+INSS” instead of meetings until either my handwriting or the Anoto/Logitech’s recognition software improves.

The real advantage to the Logitech Io pen is that it provides a platform for developing more ambitious paper-to-pixels applications. At the First Anoto Developers Conference in January, I saw some very obvious uses for the technology being explored, including corporate forms and medical office stationery. There was also a cute but striking application that played back every pen stroke in a line drawing, taking advantage of the fact that .PEN files contain not just finished pictures but the pressure and angle and duration of each pen stroke. This was an entertaining application. But it also bodes well for more serious uses–authenticating documents, the prevention of fraud or other document tampering, and signature capture.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m just off to a MEL+INSS with a Mr. Cale. I wonder if we’re related…

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