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Real Ink, Real Paper, Real Digital

By Stephen H. Wildstrom The notion of getting handwritten text into a computer has been around for quite a while. A few years ago, A.T. Cross brought out a device called the CrossPad that let you write on a standard pad with a special pen and paper holder, then transfer your scribblings to a computer. IBM (IBM), which was responsible for the CrossPad's technology, refined it into the ThinkPad TransNote, a laptop with a CrossPad-like tablet. Like the CrossPad, it flopped. And, of course, Microsoft (MSFT) has invested heavily in the Tablet PC, which lets you write on-screen with a special pen and saves the results as "digital ink" (see BW, 11/18/01, "The Microsoft Pen Is a Mite Clunky").

Now, Logitech (LOGI) is betting that maybe the Cross-IBM idea of capturing writing with real ink on real paper was the right way to go. Its new io Personal Digital Pen dispenses with the CrossPad's clunky digitizing pad holder, which read radio signals from the special pen. Instead, it incorporates a tiny camera in the pen -- similar to the sensor used in an optical mouse -- that traces a pattern of tiny dots printed on special paper.

When you put the pen into a dock that connects to a Windows PC through a USB port, the digital ink is transferred into the computer. Once there, it can be pasted into a number of applications, from Microsoft Word to FranklinCovey's PlanPlus scheduler. (Since the pen uses ordinary ink, you can also use it to write on ordinary paper, but the results won't be captured.)

THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY. The $200 io, based on technology from Sweden's Anoto, requires a fairly chunky pen that people with smaller hands might find uncomfortable, though its weight of a bit under 2 ounces (53 grams) actually makes it lighter than many conventional pens. It can supposedly hold 40 pages of written material in its built-in memory, but since the battery is rated at only 25 pages, you'll probably have to dock the pen for recharging long before you would have to dock it to dump its memory to a PC.

The io's advantage is that it lets you take notes the old-fashioned way, far more unobtrusively than with a Tablet PC, while still creating an electronic record of what you write. Although Logitech chose not to include full-fledged handwriting recognition, feeling that the state of the art wasn't good enough for a satisfactory user experience, you can create keywords or date notations in capital letters and search for them later.

One significant drawback to this approach is the cost and limited availability of the special paper required. Three 160-page spiral-bound notebooks from Mead cost a stiff $24.99. A three-pack of large Post-it notes from 3M costs $14.99. Oddly enough, the trusty legal pad isn't yet in the catalog. If the io pen catches on, however, the special paper should get much cheaper, and many more varieties should be available. With Jennifer Drew

Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BusinessWeek Online

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