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IBM pen-based notebook runs dry

Sometimes the keyboard is mightier than the pen: Big Blue discontinues its ThinkPad TransNote, which captured notes jotted on paper.

Sometimes the keyboard is mightier than the pen: IBM has discontinued its ThinkPad TransNote, a portable PC that also captures notes jotted on paper.

On Monday, an IBM representative confirmed that the company has stopped manufacturing the notebook because, "in this economic environment, sales did not reach our expectations."

The company introduced the TransNote a year ago with great fanfare. Users could input data using a keyboard, touch screen or pen. The machine was packaged in a portfolio-like cover that, when folded, allowed its owner to use either the ThinkPad or the paper pad.

At the time, IBM said that the TransNote, developed jointly by its portables group and IBM Research, would be the first in a series of computers that sought to better address how people record information on the go. IBM has produced several, more radical, computer designs, including a wearable ThinkPad and a watch computer. It's possible that TransNote technology will show up in future IBM products.

But, analysts said, a relatively high price and limited usability conspired to dim the TransNote's appeal, demonstrating that people aren't always willing to pay a premium for cool technology--unless it's useful. The notebook started at between $2,999 and $3,100, and it did not provide true handwriting recognition. Instead, it captured notes and drawings made on a pad that had transceivers to track a pen's movement and transmitted the information to a text file.

This is the second time in less than a month that the death knell has sounded for a pen-based PC. Sony said in mid-January that it would swiftly phase out its Vaio Slimtop Pen Tablet, a desktop design. It's also an ill omen, at least in the near term, for the Tablet PC that Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates showed off at Comdex in November.

The problem for the TransNote was that IBM was selling into "a niche market that had limited growth potential," said Bob Sutherland, an analyst with Technology Business Research.

The TransNote's potential buyers included insurance agents, real-estate agents, lawyers and students.

"For the very organized people, it was ideal. But aside from that, what a lot of people were looking for...was some kind of handwriting-recognition software like a PalmPilot," Sutherland said.

IBM notified suppliers of its intention to discontinue the TransNote at the end of the year. Some of the devices are still available, an IBM representative said. But once the inventory is gone, the TransNote will be, too.