April 17, 2017 — May 26, 2023

making things
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Figure 1: Livescribe art by Ed Stewart.

My current smart pen is Livescribe, a ball-point pen that remembers what I write if I use special paper. Livescribe is a company which uses Anoto dot patterns. There were a few other pens which use this technology; I believe Livescribe is the last one standing.

NB: The company is still in operation. Sometimes it is hard to tell, because they seem to be bad at communicating this idea; the US site is currently operational (although seemed to have no stock for a while there) but international sites, last time I checked, were ghost towns and had no information about what was going on, and would refuse to shop products to you.

The Livescribe is a good stylus input. Some models have some bonus features I don’t use, such as audio recording. You can find more about such features on the internet, but I will say nothing further on that due to not caring. I want to write stuff and digitize.

The experience of writing itself is smooth. The pen has a big memory, so I do not need to sync to smartphone often.

The major weakness is, the smartphone app is obnoxiously bad: awful, clunky and crashes regularly, and infrequently updated. A real mean sting is that it plays mandatory advertisements for other Livescribe products before it lets me use the one I just now paid a lot of money for. The former problems I could attribute to incompetence, but playing mandatory advertising in a way that degrade the usefulness of the product is malice, and substantially increases the likelihood that I will switch brands to a competitor. The app no longer plays mandatory advertising for other Livescribe products before it lets me use the one I just now paid a lot of money for.

It transfers data to special app (ios/android) via bluetooth then via a cloud service such as dropbox, google drive, Evernote or OneNote to other devices. Another annoyance: there are no end-to-end encrypted sync services on the list of cloud sync services, so everything I write using the pen can be assumed to be subpoena-vulnerable and spook-readable in some jurisdiction or other.

And no, there is no option on that list that simply transfers files to your hard drive. It has to go via the hard drive of some unaccountable third party. As such, do not use it to write notes on anything if you do not want police and spooks reading it.

People have been complaining about the app for 7+ years now and it has remained largely unchanged apart from fixes for crashing bugs and compatibility updates, so do not buy the pen in the hope that the app will improve. If this were a priority for the company they would have demonstrated that before now. There is a “share” option which allows manual, (more?) secure export via other apps.

A real frustration is that the writing experience for this device is so good, so simple and easy and intuitive, that it makes the unnecessary pain points introduced by their terrible software even more vexing by contrast.

This is so close to an amazing, luxurious experience, but they dropped the ball just before the goal. It is as if you are an aspirational cook, and a Michelin star chef lends you their staff and kitchen and you can use it all you want, but it is on fire.

UPDATE: There is a desktop app called Livescribe+ which circumvents some of my criticism (e.g. going via cloud for no reason) and works on the more recent models. I have not tried it yet.

Aside: What is with the app naming? If I bought a laptop and it came with an app called “Laptop+” that was essential to executing basic fucntions, I would be suspicious.

tl;dr Great hardware, awful software, the company doesn’t seem to care about non-USA customers sufficiently to reliably supply them.

Here are some links I’ve needed for the Livescribe; they are probably obsolete: one of Livescribe’s many irritating habits is suddenly migrating content to new places without redirects.

Question: how bad a security breach is it to lose one of these pens? I suspect very bad, since it will remember a LOT and has essentially no authentication.

I really love the Anoto dot pen technology. Their hardware is wonderful. I wonder if there is a company which is better at deploying it than is Livescribe? Apparently Anoto have made a few mis-steps in their commercialisation and generally do not have a better spin-off technology licensee, or at least, searching for the alternatives I found on Wikipedia led only to discontinued products.