Switched On: Livescribe's hot recording artist seeks mass appeal (Part 2)

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment

The last Switched On discussed the innovative approach that Livescribe has taken in its core note-taking function while touching on some of the company's grander plans to create a wide array of applications and content, taking it far beyond its failed predecessor, the Logitech io2.

Livescribe is building an ambitious house in a neighborhood that has seen a lot of foreclosures; Pulse will need to rewrite history to be successful in the traditionally challenged smartpen market. Indeed, between the time that the Pulse was announced and shipped, Logitech announced it was writing off the market for now. In addition to improving on note-taking, the company points to the reduced size of the Pulse as being less obtrusive than previous smartpens and thus more appealing to use. One of the keys to smartpen use is that it is less obtrusive than, say, a PC using Microsoft OneNote, which also has the ability to synchronize audio to written notes.

However, the Pulse's OLED display offsets at least some of the gains made toward discretion by shrinking the pen's girth. Worse, to get the full benefit of the Pulse's cool ability to resolve conversations in a room using 3D audio recording, you must wear earbuds that contain embedded microphones. It's hard to imagine something that could be more off-putting to a speaker than seeing an audience member wearing earbuds, and it would engender curiosity when that speaker notices that they are connected to a pen. Fortunately, the Pulse does a very good job of recording even without the earbud-based microphones.

Then there is the issue of recording speakers, particularly in one-on-one sessions, and risking changing the dynamic by asking whether it is OK to record. Livescribe responds that this has more to do with trust than technology, and the relationship between people will dictate whether a speaker is comfortable being recorded. Indeed, I had the coincidental experience of being interviewed by a reporter using a Pulse recently, and while the device was certainly recognizable at the outset, it soon blended into the background like any other pen would. Furthermore, integrating the audio recording into the device overcomes some of the logistics of juggling a separate voice recorder.

The Pulse enables getting your thoughts on paper "in the moment" as you are attending a meeting, lecture or presentation, but will being the best be enough? The Pulse is significantly cheaper than a Tablet PC although the need to drag around a notebook can negate some of the portability advantages. And the Pulse also faces competition from even cheaper, slimmer alternatives to the Pulse such as IOGear's recently released Mobile Digital Scribe. These will be discussed more in depth in a future column.

Also, in contrast to the early days of products such as the IBM CrossPad, notebook PCs have taken over college lecture halls and crept into many corporate meeting rooms, and while they are often scorned for distracting attendees, a new assault of inexpensive and lightweight mini-notebooks or netbooks promise to make them even more attractive for note-taking. Furthermore, typed notes don't need to be transcribed, although creating fluid diagrams on the fly remains a pen advantage. Livescribe will have to rely on the strength of other applications to broaden its appeal beyond a dedicated note-jotting core. That may ultimately determine if Livescribe can take in black ink as adeptly as its wonderpen dispenses it.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.