Q&A: How Livescribe's Sky adds a smartpen to Evernote

Livescribe, the smartpen company, has launched Sky, a Wi-Fi version that stores files in the cloud. It's incompatible with the current Echo system, but as Livescribe's Byron Connell explains, the company's new strategy is aimed at Evernote and tablet users.
Written by Jack Schofield, Contributor

Livescribe is taking its "digital smartpen" business to the cloud with Sky, a new Wi-Fi version announced today (Monday) for delivery in November. Like Livescribe's previous pens, such as the Echo and Pulse, it uses the Anoto system of specially-marked paper. However, unlike earlier models, it uploads files to Evernote, instead of storing them on users' PCs.

Livescribe smartpen

Livescribe is taking a gamble with Sky, because the pen doesn't work with the system used by the company's existing users, including some businesses, many students, and journalists. If you are using a pen to sync to Livescribe Desktop on a PC then feed the resulting file to Vision Object's character recognition program — a process for converting handwritten notes into text files — then you are out of luck. The Sky pen doesn't recognise Livescribe's desktop software and there's no ink-to-text conversion system at the moment.

Because of this incompatibility, Livescribe says it will continue to supply Echo pens. In fact, it is offering them at reduced prices: currently £66.99 instead of £99.99 for a 2GB starter pack. However, Livescribe is hoping to convert existing users to the new system while attracting new Evernote and tablet users.

On a visit to London, Byron Connell, Livescribe's US-based chief marketing officer, explained the new strategy to a small group of UK press, all of us Livescribe users.

Q: Will the new pen work with the Livescribe desktop software….

A: No. Livescribe Desktop is a cable-based solution. It continues to exist for the Echo smartpen product, and that continues as the entry-level product. The whole model around the Sky smartpen is cloud and tablet, but it should be possible for us to migrate all of your existing content into the Evernote environment.

Q: …because Livescribe Desktop is how you get your files into the OCR program, MyScript for Livescribe. So that doesn't work any more?

A: It doesn't, but we're working with Vision Objects (who do the OCR software) on a transcription service, which won't be ready at launch. We could run their algorithm on our servers and send not only your ink-strokes but also a transcribed version to your Evernote folder at the exact same time. There are also some Evernote developers that provide audio transcription services. All the audio files are right there in Evernote. That's something people have been asking for for a very long time. It might be 90 cents a minute, but it's very high quality.

Q: OCR is also how some of us get things into Microsoft Office. What happens to OneNote integration when everything's going to Evernote?

A: OneNote integration isn't part of the new product but it's something that we've looked at. We've been a little bit disappointed with OneNote. It has been a complete laggard in advancing the technology and having a good cloud solution. We've set things up so that Evernote is your repository and it has great ink search and all that stuff, and many many more users than OneNote. You can send it off from Evernote to a number of destinations that they already support -- LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and wherever else. We can plug in other destinations, such as Dropbox or OneNote or anything else, so I can still get my content pretty easily.

Q: So files are no longer stored on the local PC or server? You've still got to plug the pen in to a USB port to charge it….

A: Everything goes to the cloud. Even if you use a cable to link to your PC, that's just a pass-through: it goes to the cloud. Evernote has a sync model. This is a different product. We see the Livescribe desktop as an antiquated model. When it's in the cloud, you can access your content on different devices and you don't have to worry about your hard drive crashing.

I think we've created an environment that is 10 times better for sharing, for accessing information, and 65 percent of our customers have a tablet. They want to get stuff on their iPad, and from a customer point of view, sending stuff over a cable is not a well-received concept any more.

Q: Writing on an iPad is awful….

A: It is. Our research showed that only 13 percent of the people who were taking notes on a tablet were saying they were very satisfied with the experience. We presented this [Sky] concept to tablet users in person and in a survey of 600 users and they loved it. Part of what we're doing is we're designing for Evernote users and designing for tablet users.

Q: Why can't I have a rollerball or gel pen instead of a ballpoint in a smartpen? It's much nicer to write with.

A: The new cartridge is better: it's smoother, and it flows a lot better. We have experimented with a rollerball, and we're still interested in seeing if we can add that. The main challenge is that [the open tip] is where the infra-red optics are, so there's a tremendous compression of technology in this space. The cartridge activates the infra-red camera, so the tip needs to be magnetic. There's actually a tiny neo-magnet in the tip of the pen, which you've probably never seen, which reduces some of the noise. That's important if you're recording audio in a pen.

It was obvious that incompatibility with the past was our major bugbear, but as Connell said: "We're not discontinuing Echo. For the people who want a local experience, buy an Echo. There are customers with secure environments that want local storage, and don't want stuff in the cloud. We recognise that there are different needs in the marketplace."

It would be nice to have if Livescribe provided a formal commitment to support the Echo system for at least five or preferably 10 years, but it's hard to predict how the market for pen- and stylus-based products will develop. That's not just the market for smartpens. It's also the market for smartphones and tablets that can handle pen input, such as the Samsung Galaxy Note models and some Wacom-compatible Windows 8 PCs.


Livescribe milestones to date
Livescribe milestones to date. Source: LIverscribe
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