Keeping up with business and consumer electronics developments can seem to be a daunting task of late. Smartphones, tablets, ebook readers, and all manner of new content consumption devices are demanding our attention. Now, there is another trend to watch—the growing market opportunity for “smartpens,” which, rather than enabling content consumption, will facilitate new methods of content input. According to a new market research report from Outsell, Inc., 2011 Smartpen Landscape Report, we can expect to be hearing a lot more about smartpens in the future.
Author Ned May, vice president and lead analyst at Outsell, became a smartpen adopter himself late last year, so he had considerable understanding of the potential use for such a device. Outsell defines a smartpen as “any handheld device that digitally captures text and drawings while they are being written or drawn, and either renders them immediately on a computer or saves the data for later transfer.” Smartpens are all input devices, not display devices. While most of the pens on the market are also at least coupled with optical handwriting recognition, this was not a prerequisite for inclusion in Outsell’s definition of a smartpen.
Outsell used a third-party service to conduct a short web-based survey in March 2011. As part of the survey design, Outsell chose and targeted six enterprise functions where it anticipated the creation of handwritten notes would be an important task. These functional areas were sales, marketing, human resources, administrative assistants, legal, and R&D/science. In addition, it targeted physicians, educators, and students. Qualified respondents resided in the U.S. and were age 18 or over. The survey received 428 responses.
Among the people surveyed, 60% of respondents had heard of a smartpen but only 7% of respondents actually owned one. May says that while this single-digit figure could be viewed as relatively low penetration, it is actually higher than ownership of ereaders was at this time last year. Admittedly, this was a very small group, but a key point is that regular usage in this small group of early adopters is quite high, with nearly half (48%) indicating they use it “all the time,” while an additional 39% indicated they use the device frequently. May says, “The people that use it absolutely love it.”
Smartpens are well-suited for anyone who uses pen and paper, and especially for people who spend much of their time in situations like meetings, seminars, and interviews, where typing on a laptop or even an iPad would be disruptive. (Yes, there’s a generation that thinks nothing of typing during an in-person meeting, but some of us aren’t comfortable with that.) Key markets would be journalists, lawyers, salespersons, consultants, students, educators, and many other professionals.
May says he was drawn to it because he’s a “horrible notetaker.” He uses the Livescribe Echo, which has the ability to capture live audio and handwriting. It is currently the only company producing pens that synchronize these two elements. What this means is that a user’s notes are linked with what was heard at the time they were taken and recall of this audio is as easy as tapping any point in the notes with the pen.
Potential Market Demand
Gadget manufacturers have been trying to embed useful technology into a pen for years, but suddenly there is a wave of new efforts underway; processing power and memory have advanced to levels that allow the increased functionality of these pens to outweigh their cost. According to May, this cost:benefit ratio will only improve, and as it does the market for smartpens is likely to take off.
Outsell’s research indicates smartpens represent a nascent market opportunity, with high awareness but low current ownership. The survey respondents are voracious note takers, with students dedicating more than four hours a day to the task and others spending approximately two hours a day creating handwritten notes. And, nearly one-third of survey respondents indicated they digitize their notes—either immediately (using a smartpen) or after the fact (by, heaven help us, typing or scanning). As the report notes, “Clearly a technology-driven approach could save valuable time in an enterprise; our data implies notes are being taken not once but twice, which ignores the improvement in communication that would come from eliminating the unnecessary step of transcription.”
The report summary states: “Outsell believes the smartpen market is on the cusp of taking off; if it does, simple digital capture of note-taking may restore handwriting as a leading form of content creation. This shift has the potential to be as transformative to the publishing and information industry as the typewriter was—and just possibly as transformative as the PC.”
May points to the rapid adoption of tablets, displacing desktop PC use. But, he says devices like the iPad are not good input devices. Smartpens could be a complement to that—“the conditions are right.” He’d love to see a stylus integrated with the iPad that would allow users to capture written comments and audio directly to the device.
Some folks speculate that this will in fact happen—that Apple for one is working on stylus input technologies for touch screens.
Jack Purcher, writing at Patently Apple, says, “If I didn’t carefully read the overview of a recent Apple patent, I could have easily missed the entire revelation of a new smart pen system that is being worked on in Apple’s hallowed Cupertino labs. Although Apple has been amassing smart pen patents over recent years, nothing comes close to this one. The funny thing about this one is—there’s not a single smart pen graphic to be had. No, this patent is different. This patent provides us with an overview, a master plan of how a smart pen could fit into the bigger picture. Apple is working on a very complex information collecting and retrieval system that is military grade and the smart pen simply plays a major role.”
As May says, smartpens embody the changes ahead “as manufacturers embed computing into everyday objects, allowing us to generate and share information as part of our daily activities rather than as a separate event aimed at recounting the activities after they’ve happened.”
The Outsell report includes information about the following:
- Ownership data for smartpens from Livescribe, Wacom, IOGear, Solidtek USA, Dane-Elec, and LogiPen
- Analysis of note-taking habits, digital note usage, audio vs. handwriting capture, and note-taking surfaces
- Discussion of smartpen market penetration, price sensitivity, and potential demand
- Exploration of the most desired features in smartpens
Additional information on the report content and ordering information is at