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Is the digital pen mightier?

Past attempts at a high-tech quill have ended up as expensive paperweights, but a new crop of start-ups has higher hopes. Photos: Pens get smarter

For decades, tech companies have been trying to create a digital pen that appeals to the masses. But after years of effort, the world isn't exactly overrun with high-tech quills.

A new crop of companies, however, say it's too soon to write off the idea.

This week, Irvine, Calif.-based Iogear announced plans for a digital pen that can work with standard paper. Last month, educational computer maker LeapFrog introduced the FlyFusion, its second go at the digital pen. And later this year, Silicon Valley start-up LiveScribe plans to introduce a $200 device that can not only take digital notes, but also synchronize them with an audio recording.

The latest bunch are a far cry from the earliest attempts to add a brain to the standard Bic. But the question remains: Will these new devices be more than a curiosity? Or will they, like their predecessors, find themselves quickly relegated to the back of desk drawers or spend their days as expensive paperweights?

The quest for a digital pen people actually want has lived alongside another perennial tech pursuit--getting people to navigate traditional computers using the pen as an input device. While Microsoft has managed to create a few converts with its Tablet PC and many graphic designers use pen tablets for their work, the overwhelming majority of people still do their hunting and pecking via the venerable keyboard.

As for the standalone digital pen, it has been around, in its modern incarnation, since Sweden's Anoto developed a special kind of paper that allows a pen with a built-in camera to easily track itself.

Logitech has been using that approach since 2002, when it introduced the Io digital pen. It has since added handwriting recognition and Bluetooth wireless abilities.

Still, it has yet to really take off. "It's a small part of our business," said Logitech spokeswoman Nancy Morrison.

The allure of such devices is undeniable. The idea of a pen, only better, inherently sounds good. However, there have always been significant trade-offs.

That's still true with the latest crop. Both the FlyFusion and LiveScribe devices require special paper.

Brian Wells, the senior product marketing manager for Iogear, said digital pens have always required special paper, special pens or both. The benefit of the company's $99 Digital Scribe, he said, is that it can work with any pen and write anywhere. "Any paper, a sheet of paper, a sticky note, masking tape," Wells said. "Heck, you could probably attach it to the top of a wall."

Iogear's pen, however, must be connected to a computer while the notes are being taken. That's a big drawback, because most people who have their computer with them might just use that to take notes. (Iogear hopes to eventually add an untethered version.)

Wells said there is still a big market, such as college students in classes where they need to take down more than text, things like diagrams that can best be done with a pen and paper.

LiveScribe agrees, but takes the notion a step further. One of its big selling points is that it can record audio and then synchronize it with the handwritten notes. Microsoft offers a similar feature for computer-based notetakers that use its OneNote application, though the LiveScribe pen offers the benefit of being able to work without being tethered to a PC.

The device is expected to cost less than $200 and make its debut before year's end, the company said when it first discussed the product at the D: All Things Digital conference in May. LiveScribe declined to provide an update or comment for this article.

LeapFrog, meanwhile, introduced its $79 FlyFusion at the end of July. The device is a sequel to Leapfrog's first Fly. The last generation was a standalone device that used specially coded paper to enable youngsters to draw a calculator and then add up some numbers or draw a piano and then play music.

The new pen is cheaper, $79 versus $99, and about 25 percent smaller than its predecessor. "It really looked and felt like a toy," senior brand manager Chad Weiner said of the first Fly. Still, Weiner said, the original "sold surprisingly well," though he would not give specific sales figures.

This time around, LeapFrog is aiming at slightly older youths, adding the ability to take digital notes and then connect them back to a Windows PC, where they can be either saved or e-mailed as images, or converted to text (with the results varying widely based on the penmanship of the author).

For Iogear's Wells, the digital pen has been a labor of love. He's tried out devices since 1992, when he got his first one after graduating high school. That first model, which he took with him to Cypress College in Southern California, cost $300, required special paper and was tethered to a big plastic piece that sat under the paper.

Over time, though, the technology has improved. Wells said Iogear connected a couple years back with a chipmaker that had the technology that would work with any ink or paper.

"We thought it was about time," he said. "We thought we can really make a run now."

One thing all the new products have going for them is that they come at a time where Windows' support for digital ink has never been better. With Windows XP, only the stylus-based Tablet PC edition really supported pen input. With Windows Vista, though, the operating system supports more kinds of ink, including that from tablets like those from Wacom, as well as things like Iogear's Digital Scribe.

"Everything just kind of fell together," Wells said.