Monday, May 12, 2008

This is my 1,234th post in Precision Blogging. Scribble, scribble, eh? Today: the Pulse pen:

If you've started reading my blog recently, I recommend the archives. They're not too shabby.

Today, I'm going to critique, without having seen or used it, the Pulse smart pen. According to a David Pogue column, Jim Marggraff, the genius who brought us the Fly Fusion Pen, has taken a great step forward with the Pulse. Here's my bottom line: I think the Pulse is very exciting. I wish I had one, but I don't want to buy it. I wish it luck, but I think that small computers will compete against it too well. Now here are the details.

I love the Fly Fusion Pen. See my blog entry about it, here. It was hard for me to decide to buy it, because that product seemed to be aimed at pre-teen girls. But I was right, it's great for adults, too. The Fly Fusion Pen is a computer that you can use, very discreetly, to take notes for later computer processing. You can use it where you might embarrass people by typing on your PC, or where you do not want to lug your heavy, bulky PC. Both the Fly Fusion and the Pulse do a lot of other things as well, and I think that's part of the problem. (More on this below.)

As soon as I saw Pogue's column, a single question popped into my mind: did I make a terrible mistake, buying too soon? I decided that I prefer the Fly Fusion Pen to the Pulse. The reasons are simple: The Pulse would cost another $50 to $100 (the Devil is in the accessories); the Fly fusion Pen hit a great price point for me, under $100. And the Pulse offers much too much; I don't want to pay for its solutions to problems I don't have. (I don't mind that extra hour I spent reading the Fly Fusion Pen's documentation, before settling on the four simple commands I would need. But complexity brings ... well ... more complexity.)

The Pulse looks like a terrific item. It's classy. It has an OLED display. It records audio. Executives and college students will be proud to carry it. The fact that it can play audio back also means you can use menus with it (like the Fly pen)! You can tap through a series of choices you do not see, and the audio speaker will tell you what they are, to let you select one. The Pulse has two amazing features lacking on the Fly Pen:
  • It has an Open Platform software interface. Developers are encouraged to extend it. Who knows what they'll do with it? In time, this product could morph into something wonderful and unexpected.
  • You can associate recorded audio with written notes. If you are going to record a lot of audio, that can be a fantastic feature. This feature caught David Pogue's imagination, and that contributed to the Pulse getting “good ink” in the New York Times.

The second half of David Pogue's review covers the pains of complexity in the Pulse product. The Fly Fusion pen has many of the same learning issues, but let me assure you: if you know what you want to do with the pen, it will be easier to learn than Pogue suggests.

Now here's my jaundiced view: In the long run, most complex things that you can do with the Pulse pen will compete against small computers. The general purpose computer almost always wins. Very specialized computers (like fancy synthesizers) carve out unbeatable niches, but usually you are better off owning a computer that can do hundreds of kinds of tasks. Many people who want to combine written notes and audio can do that on their PCs. As an open-api platform, the Pulse will be looking for exciting niches where our ever-shrinking ultra small PCs cannot compete. I wish it luck in finding them.

Otherwise, I'd like to see Smart Pens focus on what they can do best: write computer readable text. I don't want to pay extra for all the software development that enables the pens to do too many other things; and there probably IS a cost there in the base retail price. The Fly Fusion pen can actually behave like a synthesizer. Someone wrote software to support this feature, and I'm paying for part of that feature, even though I do not want it.

By the way, be warned: you need special paper for these pens to write on. (The paper's cheap, you just have to be able to carry it.) The paper is special. When I write in their notebook, the dots on the page tell my Fly Fusion pen what PAGE I'm on.

A handsome pen that makes no noise and discreetly writes info for me to upload: If the price is right, that's the specialized computer that a generalized PC can't match.
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