Desperately Seeking the Info Pad

Or, What I Did on my Summer 'Vacation'


I want to tell you about a dream.

Last summer, after the cutbacks at PalmSource, I spent some of my "vacation" (ie, job search) thinking about products I wanted the tech industry to build. That's what you're supposed to do in Silicon Valley, right? You leave a company, come up with the Next Great Thing, get it funded, and create a wildly successful startup.

I got the idea part. Unfortunately, it involves hardware. Most VCs don't like to fund hardware companies. I mean, really don't like. As in, you talk about the idea, and their eyes get glassy and they become overpolite and they start to inch away as if you had a highly communicable disease.

It is just barely possible to get a hardware company funded, but the odds against success are enormously higher than doing yet another Web 2.0 company – so high that I wasn't willing to take that sort of risk when I need to be saving for my kids' college. Besides, I also wanted to try consulting, and that's working out nicely.

But that leaves me with this product idea that I really believe in, probably more strongly than any new product in the last decade. I know there's a big market for it, and I think the business model is solid. It's an opportunity not just to create a cool device business, but to establish an online service franchise that's at least as big as the franchise Apple has with iTunes. But you have to start with hardware, and that makes it very uncomfortable to the investment community here.

So I decided I'd just share the idea. Somebody steal it. Please. I'm interested in your comments and suggestions , but most of all I want someone to build one of these darned things so I can use it!


Let's start with the customer

A lot of product pitches in Silicon Valley start with the product, but I think it's best to start with the customer. If you understand their needs well enough, the product opportunity becomes almost obvious.

When I was at Palm, we did a lot of market research in the US, France, Germany, and the UK on what people would be willing to pay for (if anything) from a mobile information device like a handheld or smartphone. We found three groups of customer with very different needs. Each is about 11-12% of the population, and each has wildly different needs from the others. I've written about them before, but a quick refresher would he useful:

Entertainment lovers. This group is relatively young, generally college age or young professionals. They're very lifestyle and entertainment-aware, and they want their mobile device to serve that lifestyle. All kinds of entertainment appeal to them: music, video, games, etc. The iPod is their canonical device today, although the Danger Hiptop is also interesting, as is the Sony PSP.

Communication lovers. This group is professionals who are also extroverts, people who live to communicate with others. Think sales reps and marketing professionals. They're hungry to be in constant contact with their friends and business associates, and they'll use any communication technology they can get. A RIM Blackberry or a Treo are the best mobile devices for them today, because they combine phone calls with e-mail.

Information lovers. The third group is professionals who are more introverted, people who deal a lot with information rather than communications. The information could be documents, it could be databases, it could even be artwork. But the emphasis is on the individual's interaction with that information. Think doctors, artists, educators, and researchers. The ideal mobile device for these people is...well, it doesn't exist.

What they want is something that can go with them all the time, and that will function as an extended memory and as a way to capture their ideas. Specifically, they need to capture notes, sketches, and documents; work with databases; and look up information instantly. They need a brain extender, a true information appliance.

I call it an info pad. That's the product I want someone to build.

It's larger than a handheld and smaller than a tablet PC. About the size and thickness of a steno pad. It has a touch-sensitive screen on the front, and very few buttons.

I thought about trying to draw a picture of the info pad, but that would have been risky – both to my credibility and to your sense of aesthetics. Then I remembered a drawing that graphic artist Mike Rohde did of his ideal device, a digital sketchpad. It looks very much like what I'm picturing for the info pad:




Thanks to Mike for letting me reproduce this. I'll say a little more about sketching below.

Ideas for mini-tablet devices like this have been kicking around for years in various forms. But in our research we found that the customers are very sensitive to even small variations in price, weight, size, and functionality. If it's too big or too complex or too expensive, the market doesn't happen at all. This has caused a lot of tablet computers to fail over the years, and most people in Silicon Valley have written off the market as a result.

That's a mistake. Remember, a lot of people wrote off the mobile music market until Apple created the right solution. I think the same thing's going to happen with info pads.


What the product does

First and foremost, ink. You write on the screen and it captures your notes and drawings. It's as much like writing on a pad of paper as possible, because the thing you're replacing is the paper notepad or journal that students and knowledge workers carry with them all the time.

When I say "ink" I mean literally ink – put pixels exactly where the user touches the pen. Tablet PC converts pen strokes to quadratic b-splines, which is mathspeak for curved lines. That process subtly changes the letter forms, smoothing and altering them. It uses a lot of computing power (meaning it needs a faster processor and bigger batteries), and it seems to introduce a slight delay to the interface. You feel like you're using the stylus to push lines around on the screen rather than just writing and forgetting about the computer. I know some people like it, but I found it maddening.

One of the most important features of the info pad is something it doesn't do: handwriting recognition. Most of the note-taking devices that companies have tried to make over the years, from Newton to Tablet PC, make on-screen handwriting recognition a marquee feature. Your handwriting turns into printed text. That's a logical feature to pursue if you're an engineer; character recognition is an elegant way to bridge the gap between human and computer. It frees us from the tyranny of the keyboard.

The only problem is, it doesn't work.

Or maybe a better way to put it would be, it almost works. It's just good enough to get people to try it, creating the expectation that it'll be as foolproof as using a keyboard. But then a few words get garbled, you start going back and trying to correct things, and suddenly you're spending more time managing the device than doing your work.

This is deadly. It's also unnecessary. The purpose of our device is to let you capture your own ideas and information, so you can refer back to it later. In this context, character recognition is useless. You can read your own handwriting. Just capture ink, do a great job of making that effortless, and punt the rest. You may not get written up in Scientific American, but you'll sell a heck of a lot more product.

Okay, so now we're writing on the screen. We've replaced two incredibly useful and inexpensive tools, pen and paper, with something more expensive and less flexible. What's the benefit? A couple of things.

First, our device is an endless notebook. You can keep all your notes in it. Forever. For your entire life. This won't seem like a big deal to a 20 year old, but after you've been in business for a while, there comes a time when you remember a meeting you had a year ago when you heard something brilliant and relevant to the issue at hand. You know you wrote it down, but you also know it's in an old notebook that you filled up and stored in the garage somewhere. Forget about finding it – you might as well have never taken the notes in the first place.

If you have an info pad, that need never happen again. We'll compress and store all your notes, permanently.

What's more, we're going to sync the device to your calendar and address book. So it'll know when and where you took the notes, and if the meeting had an attendee list you'll know who was there as well. You can then use all this information to look up old notes.

This mimics the way people remember things, through associations. You'll remember that the meeting was at a particular conference, or that someone specific was in the room, or that it was the same month as your trip to Mexico. With notes that are cross-referenced with your calendar and contacts, you can browse just the ones that you took at that time, or with that person, or in that location. You may have to look through a few pages, but we should be able to narrow the search enough that it'll be pretty easy to find what you need.

I said earlier that we won't use handwriting recognition in the device, but I exaggerated. There is one useful task for handwriting recognition in an info pad: indexing. In the background, without pointing it out to the user, the info pad will attempt to recognize the user's notes, in order to build an index to them. The recognized text will never be shown to the user, so we don't have to worry about how many words are misspelled. Recognition that's only 80% or 90% effective is useless for writing a memo, but good enough to create a fantastic index.

The killer app in an info pad isn't the note-taking, it's the lookup and indexing functions. This produces one simple benefit for a user: If you write something down in an info pad, you'll never forget it again.

I don't know about you, but in my information-overloaded life, that would be golden.

The personal archive. The other primary task of an info pad is storing and displaying documents and databases. People in information-heavy jobs typically have documents, files, or reports that they may need to refer to during the day. We'll make it easy for the user to identify those documents, whether they're on the user's PC or on the Internet, and then we'll keep them synced so the user always has the latest version.

This archive of documents can be quite rich if the user wants it to be. Storage capacity on mobile devices has been growing explosively. We're kind of blase about that, maybe because storage capacity is even higher on PCs. But even a few gigs of storage can hold an amazing amount of information. For example, one gigabyte could hold the uncompressed text from about 2,800 novels. With compression, you could easily double that, if not a lot more. So we're talking the text of at least 5,000 novels, which is one a week for every week of your life if you live to be 96. That's more text than most people will read in their lives.

What would our information-hungry, memory-extending user do with all that storage? I'm not sure, but one thing I'd do is carry an archive of all my e-mails. Every e-mail I've ever sent. Incoming and outgoing, personal and business. Not the enclosures (they're too large), but the text. It would be great to be able to also capture snapshots of Web articles that I want to refer back to in the future. Make all of this indexed and searchable just like the notes. So this is another part of my life where I'll never forget anything.

Sketching. Mike Rohde's idea was to produce a digital version of a Moleskine, the small notebooks that artists and creative people carry to sketch and take notes. Moleskine owners are obsessive about them, as you can see here. Mike has some very ambitious ideas for the device, including exchangeable nibs for the pen, which would produce different sketching effects on the screen. I think that's an intensely cool idea, but I'm not proposing it in version one of the info pad because of cost and complexity.

I do think we should put basic sketching functionality in the info pad, though. It may not a Moleskine replacement in version one, but it should let users create simple sketches and drawings easily. That's a part of note-taking.

What would your lawyer say? I don't know if I have any lawyers in my reading audience, but if I do their hair is probably standing on end right about now. The idea of a perfect archive of all your notes and documents, with nothing forgotten, is terrifying to a corporate attorney. Companies rely on old information being destroyed, so it can't be subpoenaed in a lawsuit. For this reason, many companies have adopted document destruction policies.

IT managers might also be uncomfortable with an info pad. If an employee can walk away with a device holding every e-mail they sent or received in the company, that's a potential security hole. The reality is that employees can do that with a USB drive today, but I'd expect resistance anyway.

So, to assuage their fears, we'll give corporations the ability to tag company-confidential business documents with expiration dates. After they expire, they're purged from memory. I hate the idea of deliberately destroying a document, but I think we need to be sensitive to these things before they become an issue. Besides, the reality is that many companies will insist on the function and then never bother to use it.


The features

Before I get into the details, let's talk for a second about philosophy on features. I think a lot more mobile products fail because they have too many features than because they have too few. The more features you add, the more cost you add – and the more software you have to write. I'd rather have the engineers focused on making five features work wonderfully than making ten features work okay. So if something's not essential to the core functionality of the device, my inclination is to throw it off the boat.

Size. 9" high, 6" wide, 1" thick (23cm x 15cm x 2.5cm). If you can make it thinner, all the better. The info pad does not fit in your pocket; it goes in your bag or on your desk. Basically, it lives wherever your paper notebook lives today.

Weight. The weight of a thick paperback book – 16 ounces or less (450 grams). This would be far too much for a phone or handheld, but this is a different device. You won't be holding it up to your face.

Screen. High resolution grayscale, very high contrast ratio, touch sensitive. Color is optional – color screens generally have larger pixels and lower contrast ratios, making them harder to read. I think some people are going to disagree about color, but it's not essential to note-taking or document reading. (Think about it – how many of us carry colored pens or pencils so we can take notes in color?)

The ideal screen technology would be the e-ink displays being used in Sony's and Philips' new e-book products. I've seen e-ink technology in person, and it's stunning – the whites are very white, and the blacks are pretty darned black. It looks like a photocopied sheet of paper. It's very hard to see in photographs how much better the screens look; you have to see them in person. To me, as an old-time printing guy, they were breathtaking.

Unfortunately, e-ink screens have a huge drawback – latency. They work by physically driving tiny black particles to the front or back of a white liquid. This takes a lot more time than flipping on and off a liquid crystal pixel.

This is very visible in Sony's e-book reader – when you flip the page, it visibly turns all black, then all white, then draws the new page. It's like the flicker you get from a bad video edit, and just as annoying. This is acceptable in an e-book, where the pages don't change often. But it eliminates the possibility of doing anything interactive, like drawing or writing.

When I was investigating the info pad idea last summer, I talked to someone deeply involved in e-ink technology. The sad message was that it'll be at least two more product generations before they can flip pixels fast enough for effective note-taking – and that will happen only if some potential customer pushes them to do it. Right now the push is for other features -- the biggest demand for e-ink displays right now is for advertising signs that can be changed when needed, and high latency is acceptable there.

So for version one of the info pad, I think our first choice is a very high-resolution, high-contrast grayscale LCD screen. I've seen some beautiful ones in Japan, so I know they exist.

The other constraint on the screen technology will be cost. There's not a lot of demand for grayscale LCDs, so I'm very worried that we may not be able to get the right size at the right price. There are some very nice grayscale screens produced for medical imaging (viewing x-rays and such). But they're generally 19 or 20-inch diagonals, far too large for us. We need about a nine-inch diagonal grayscale LCD, and I couldn't find one in a quick web search. That implies we'd likely have to order a custom-made part, which creates huge inventory risks. We might be safer settling for a color LCD screen.

Battery life. It needs to run all day with heavy usage (assume eight hours of meetings or classes). That's one of the reasons I specified the thickness at one inch. I think the customer would accept a little more thickness to get a device that can run all day long.

Slots. One SD, one PCMCIA. The SD slot is for adding extra memory. This lets our base device be less expensive. The PCMCIA slot is for a cellular wireless card, if the user wants it. It would add a lot of cost to build a cellular radio into the info pad, and more to the point we'd then have to create separate devices for separate network standards, and sell through the carriers. Been there, done that, want none of it.

Built-in wireless. Mandatory: Bluetooth. Not so much to talk to other devices, but for syncing with the user's PC. Cradles are a pain in the butt for a manufacturer. They're inevitably expensive, and the connector is subject to all sorts of breakage and other problems. Instead we ship the device with Bluetooth built in, and a small USB Bluetooth dongle that the user can attach to his or her PC. Then we can buy a nice cheap standardized power supply that plugs into the info pad.

Optional: WiFi. If we can afford it, we should have WiFi built into the device, just so no one complains about it being missing. But keep in mind that this is a note-taking appliance, not a PC. WiFi isn't essential to the core operation of the device.

Camera. Built-in one megapixel camera. The lens is on the back or front edge of the info pad. Why build in a camera? Because it helps with note-taking – you can take pictures of notes on a whiteboard, and you can take pictures of pages in a book or magazine. No more time wasted jotting down things from a whiteboard, or copying quotes out of a book for a research paper.

Operating system. I think there are four candidates – Windows Mobile, Windows CE, Palm OS, and Linux. I would have killed to get a licensee working on a product like this while I was at PalmSource, and Palm OS would be my sentimental choice. But both Microsoft and Access/PalmSource are too focused on phones to take care of our needs. By using a Linux distribution, we can tap into the Linux developer community for supporters and engineers.

Built in applications. Note-taker, document viewer, calendar, contacts, to-do, calculator, search. That's it. It would have been nice to use Palm OS or Windows Mobile, because they have many of these apps ready to go. But they're not formatted for our size of screen, so better to do the apps ourselves. Palm managed to create the original Palm OS apps with pretty small teams, so I think we can handle it.

The other app we're going to build into the device is a third party software store. We'll open up the APIs, and give an on-device store where people can discover new apps and install them directly. We'll take a reasonable cut of the developer's revenue – 20%. They get the other 80%.

Having this software store built in gives us two benefits. First, it encourages a nice third party ecology of developers who can fill in the applications that I have deliberately left out of the device: browser, e-mail program, etc (remember our philosophy – focus our engineering team on making the most essential features work great). The other benefit of the store is that as the developer ecology grows, we get an ongoing revenue stream. We don't have to choose which applications win, but we do have an incentive to make our developers successful. We actually make more money when we leave opportunities for developers to add software. This should create a nice win-win dynamic that is absent on most mobile platforms today.

Price. In addition to the market research I mentioned above, PalmSource did some pretty extensive customer research on specific product concepts, including note-taking and information archive devices. The feedback was very clear – the maximum price for an info pad is about $350, and $299 is much better. By the time you subtract dealer margins, warranty and support costs, and your own profits, the hardware cost has to be in the $100-$150 range. I think that's doable, just barely. But we'll have to be very careful not to add in any unnecessary cost. That's why I want to avoid things like cradles.


The business model

So now we have our product designed, and we know what software we need to write. It looks like a moderately expensive startup – figure about $5-$10 million to fund the actual design and software, and another $3 million to build inventory before our launch. (Normally inventory costs would be a lot higher than that, but we're going to launch our sales direct on the Web rather than through computer stores, which allows us to launch with much less inventory on hand.) But we'll still need to do some advertising, and that eats another $7 million. So we should figure we're going to chew through at least $20 million to put the product on the market.

That's enough to make a venture capitalist think twice, but it's not out of the question at all. The market for an info pad is plenty big. I said above that the information-centric users are about 11% of the US and European populations. That's about 60 million potential buyers. But the market is actually larger – when we tested the note-taker and information archive concepts separately, we found that up to about 20% of the adult population was interested, centered around college students and middle-aged executives. That's over a hundred million people in the US and Europe – a very nice market indeed.

What will scare the VCs is our ability to hold onto this market. I'm sure we'll find some things we can patent, but mini-tablets have been played with for a long time, so I doubt we can patent anything that's so fundamental it'll prevent competition. So if we're successful we'll definitely attract competitors. Those competitors, even if they are inferior, will force down our prices somewhat. They'll also force us to add more features in order to stay competitive. Competing on price and features against large consumer electronics companies is deadly. At best, you hope one of the big players will buy you. At worst, your company dies a slow ugly death. You have the emotional satisfaction of launching a new product category, but none of the profits.

So you need an angle, some feature or approach that will create a lasting franchise rather than a grand gesture.


This is where ebooks come in

In my post last week on the ebook market, I said that ebooks are caught in a nasty chicken and egg situation. You can't get a really good base of ebooks until ebook readers are owned by about 20% of the core book-buying market. But those people won't buy ebook readers until there are a ton of ebooks available to read on them.

I think selling an info pad is the way to break this logjam. People will buy it to take notes and archive documents, but the hardware I've described above is also ideal for reading ebooks – it's light, it's small (but with a screen that's almost as large as a hardcover page), and we've gone for the highest-resolution screen we can find. We've even built in a software store that could also easily be used to sell books.

So we'll make the same offer to publishers and authors that we make to software developers – sell through us, and we'll send you 80% of the revenue. I don't know how the publishers will feel about this (it's a bigger cut than they get from distributors and bookstores, who keep about 50%). But even if the publishers won't go for it, think about what this does for authors. If you're getting an 8% royalty for a paperback, our royalty is ten times better. As soon as we can sell 1/10 what you would sell through traditional publishing, it will pay you more to focus on ebooks.

We'll also create a market for short stories and other literary forms. We'll accept anything you want to publish. I think electronic publishing might blur the lines between a short story and a novel. Today the length of literary forms is fixed by media -- short stories have to fit in magazines, and novels have to fit into about 300-800 glued pages. But once we're distributing electronically, a story can be as long or as short as it wants to be. The author sets the price and get 80% of the revenue.

One benefit I'm looking forward to is that authors might feel less of an urge to stretch a great short story idea into a novel (or even a series of novels).

In the long term, the content store becomes the core of our business. Once we get it to critical mass, it will be very hard for anyone else to copy, because they'd have to replicate our whole ecosystem – the devices, the store, and the base of content. What's more, because we've encouraged the creation of new content products, there are a lot of creative people who will be selling only through us.

We have duplicated the iTunes model, but this one is focused on words rather than music.

At this point, who cares if the consumer electronics companies clone our hardware? We can use our superior solution to compete with them. Or, the approach I like best is to license our software to them. Actually, we'll give them the software, on the condition that we run the store and keep all 20% of the revenue from it.

What would that revenue look like? Well, let's assume we that we captured 10% of book sales. Book sales are about $43 billion a year, so 10% is $4.3 billion. That's our revenue; our profit is $860 million. And if we have licensed the software, we make that profit with miniscule overhead.

Now, to be realistic, book prices will come down when ebooks are available, because we've cut out so much high-cost infrastructure. But our revenue wouldn't be capped at 10% of the book market either. For example, iTunes has about 80% of the downloadable music market in the US. At some point the numbers become arbitrary -- just pick the share figure you think you could get. No matter how you construct the model, there's potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in profit, with very low overhead. Eventually you can toss aside the hardware business like a butterfly shedding a chrysalis.

But to get this you have to be the first one to make the ebook market take off. Which means you have to start by building hardware.


Market entry

In reply to my previous post on the ebook market, John Mayer commented that the education market is a great starting point for ebooks. I think he's right, and it's an especially great starting market for the info pad. Students are logical targets from two perspectives: they take a lot of notes, and they have to carry a lot of books. If a small and inexpensive device could help them with both problems, I think it would be very well received. And although many students don't have a few hundred dollars to spend on yet another device (especially after they blew all their cash on an iPod), I think we could convince mom and dad that an info pad would be the ideal gift for a college freshman.

I think the publishers might not welcome etextbooks, since they could seriously disrupt the very lucrative market for printed textbooks. I'd expect resistance from college bookstores as well, which could be a major hurdle on campuses where the bookstore is a fundraiser for the student union or other activities. But we might be able to work directly with the professors who today create thick readers of photocopied articles for their classes. It would be much easier for everyone involved if those readers could be delivered electronically. We'd need to create or license some business structure to purchase reprint rights to articles, but that service could become a revenue stream for us.

One major asset for a collegiate info pad is Project Gutenberg, a nonprofit volunteer organization dedicated to converting every non-copyrighted book into electronic format. Pretty much everything written before the 1920s is now out of copyright, so over a period of years the project has amassed a huge library of classics from authors like Mark Twain, Shakespeare, and Charles Dickens, plus enormous numbers of more obscure works. There are about 18,000 titles in all. Unfortunately, there isn't enough demand for classic books to push a reader device to critical mass, but it'll help with college students, who are after all forced to read the darned things (and sometimes actually enjoy them).

Since we have an application programming interface for our device, we could also offer a simple software tool to let professors create quizzes and interactive content for their students. Something like Hypercard or its modern descendants.


Competitors

There are a lot of companies working on pieces of this marketplace, but no one has put together the whole solution. Here are the most prominent examples.

Microsoft. Tablet PC is the most obvious example of an effort to make a tablet computer for note-taking, and for me it's also the most disappointing. There's an old joke that if you own a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The Microsoft corollary is that if you own a PC operating system, every device looks like a PC. What customers need is a note-taking appliance, small and sleek and focused. What Microsoft gave them was a PC without a keyboard, awkward and expensive and (in my opinion) bloated. I'm not going to do a full Tablet PC review here, or this post would go on forever. But price and weight alone disqualifies Tablet PC from serious consideration for the sort of role an info pad would play.

I had high hopes that Microsoft's new Origami tablet computer design (now called the Ultra-Mobile PC) might address the problems. But it's looking more and more like a warmed-over OQO, demonstrating that Microsoft has graduated from ripping off its licensees' most successful products to ripping off their marginal ones. With a price of around $800 and four hours battery life, the product's a non-starter as an info pad.

Now Microsoft is touting a future tablet that would be very small and light, but it's a couple of years away and would cost $800. Everything that Microsoft does in tablets seems to converge up close to $1,000, whereas what the market needs is something that converges down below $299. I would love to see Microsoft do a true info pad product. But it would have to be radically simplified and run Windows CE rather than full Windows, and I fear Microsoft isn't capable of working that low in the market.

Please, Redmond, prove me wrong.

Sony Reader. This tablet device is about the right size and weight, and it has an e-ink screen. The key to its success is getting lots and lots of books available for it at paperback prices. The sample screen shot for Sony's bookstore shows close to hardcover pricing for books, which gives me the willies.



I also worry when I see the Sony website brag that it'll have "thousands of titles." We had thousands of titles at SoftBook too, and that turned out to be a couple of hundred thousand too few. There's no note-taking -- the screen is not touch-sensitive, and besides the screen response will be too slow to enable that. Sony might be able to get enough books for the device if it bought a major publisher. That's not out of the question – Sony bought a movie studio to make sure it had content for its media devices. But I think Sony's new management isn't as adventurous as the old team.

I want the Sony Reader to succeed, but unless something creative happens on the book supply side I suspect that in a couple of years we'll be reading about the quiet discontinuation of the product line.

Iliad. The Iliad, from a Philips spinoff called Irex, looks very similar to the Sony Reader. Irex appears to be positioning it for use in vertical professional markets. That's a little disturbing – business verticals are the place where failed consumer tech products go to die. When I was at SoftBook, we started focusing on business verticals after the consumer business failed to take off. There are definitely some verticals for a small tablet, but in that space you'll be competing with Tablet PC. Tablet PC will be more expensive, but it's easier for a company to develop vertical apps for it (because it's Windows), and generally companies are less price-sensitive than consumers. Best of luck, Irex.

Anoto. This is an interesting attempt at note-taking. A special pen incorporates an optical sensor that can detect a faint pattern of dots on specially-printed paper. The pen captures your handwriting and transfers it to a PC, so you can look at your notes later. The drawbacks are that you have to buy special paper, and the notes are stored on your PC, so you can't refer to them in a meeting. Also, all the electronics crammed into the pen make it very fat. You feel like you're writing with the business end of a cow thermometer.

The Anoto technology is included in LeapFrog's Fly pen and Logitech's IO Pen. I couldn't find sales data for either one. Interesting side note: the last time I was at Logitech's headquarters, they had you sign in using an IO Pen. But wasn't connected to a computer system, and you signed in on a plain paper form. They were using it just as a pen.

Note-taking software. There are several companies creating note-taking software for tablet devices. Two prominent examples are EverNote and GoBinder. EverNote is a generalized note-taking and archive product, while GoBinder is optimized for students. My take on them is that they're both interesting products that have been hamstrung by the lack of appropriate hardware.


Who could build an info pad?

Microsoft's an obvious candidate, but I think they're too focused on miniaturizing a PC. Palm could do it, but they need to spend most of their energy on smartphones. There's an outside chance that Jeff Hawkins' secret project at Palm is an info pad-like device, but people who were with Palm in the early days tell me that they were so badly burned by note-taking on the Casio Zoomer (for which Palm provided software) that they'll never do it again.

Amazon could do it, as could Google. Amazon's running a secret hardware development project in Silicon Valley. For a while I thought it might be an ebook reader, but the Wall Street Journal reported recently that it's a music player. Google is working on all sorts of mobile technology, including a project called Android. No one outside Google seems to know what Android is, but there have been rumors that it's a mobile device OS. All I know is that project Android has hired some Palm OS engineers, but that doesn't mean they're necessarily working on the same sort of things they did at PalmSource. Yahoo could do it as well, but given their ties to Hollywood I'd expect them to be more focused on a video and music player.

I think LeapFrog would be an interesting candidate. They make learning tools for children, and also the Fly pen for middle school/junior high kids. I could see them branching into an info pad for college students. Unfortunately, LeapFrog is having some financial troubles, and I don't know if they can afford to launch a new product line. They say they intend to spend more on R&D, though, so maybe there's hope.

Apple is the other obvious guess. They have the money, the motivation, and the skills. But Steve Jobs supposedly has a phobia against anything that even vaguely resembles a Newton, and I wonder if that might keep them away from the market. I have a feeling he could overcome his fear if he wanted to.

It would be amusing if Apple ended up controlling both emusic distribution and ebook distribution, wouldn't it?


Conclusion

There you have it: I think the best way to build the ebook market is to sell a note-taking and document archive device that also just happens to read ebooks. I did enough research that I'm confident you could build the product, and the business, today. No magical breakthroughs needed, just careful execution.

If anyone out there has $20 million to spare, let's chat. I'll give you some more details on how to build an e-publishing empire. You just have to promise to make me a beta tester.

_____________
By the way, I wanted to say thanks to the folks at WAP Review for including my post on ebooks in this week's Carnival of the Mobilists.

92 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is very close to an idea I've had for the past few years. I too desperately want someone to make a device like this. The Origami is close, and I have hopes for version 2 of the hardware.

The size of a DVD case, maybe a little thicker to support an extended battery and I'm good to go. I really like the sketch with the built in cover.

Personally I'm willing to pay the extra to get a full PC (I'ma developer and don't want to learn yet another API for a specialized device).

Also I want color and a browser w/ wifi built in. So much of the "knowledge" I want access to is on the web, I think it would be a mistake to leave this out. Maybe have a bargin one that doesn't include wifi, and a more expensive one that does.

Just make sure that it's easy for a user to create ebooks (or have the device read PDF files).

Just my 2 cents,

-Michael O. Schoneman

Michael Mace said...

Thanks for the comments, Michael. Good stuff.


>>Personally I'm willing to pay the extra to get a full PC

I probably would be too, if it were smaller and lighter (and easier to use) than Tablet PC. But not enough people are willing to pay that much.

The nice thing about the $299 price point is that although it's still a serious amount of money, it's a price point where people in the US and Europe are more willing to take a risk on a new product. At $899, which is the price Microsoft keeps converging to, there is a very serious decision process. It's more like buying a washer and dryer, where you research twelve brands and think about it for two months.


>>Also I want color and a browser w/ wifi built in. So much of the "knowledge" I want access to is on the web, I think it would be a mistake to leave this out.

Gotcha. Let me address the browser, because I had a specific reason for making it a third party add-on.

One of the things I learned from the former Be folks at PalmSource is that making a browser is a very big challenge. Like it or not, Internet Explorer is viewed as the standard. They had been working on browsing for years with Be OS and were pretty frustrated. People constantly complain unless you duplicate every IE feature (sometimes even the bugs). On my PC, even though I'm a Firefox user, I keep a copy of IE so I can access the occasional site that requires it.

Since we're not using Windows in the info pad, we won't have IE. If we take on the browser development ourselves, we'll have to absorb the full burden of trying to copy every feature of IE. If we leave that to a third party, and we do a good job of evangelism, chances are we'll get a couple of browser projects going from competing companies. The competitive dynamic between them will cause them to add features faster than we ever could do on our own.

So the users actually get a better product as a result.

I saw this happen with PC file compatibility in the Palm OS space. The competitive war between Documents to Go and several other products caused very rapid innovation and the development of much better products than Palm could have done on its own. On the other hand, apps that Palm tried to do in-house often evolved at molasses speed.


>>Maybe have a bargin one that doesn't include wifi, and a more expensive one that does.

Nice idea. I'd welcome a discussion here about what features different people would like or dislike, and what tradeoffs they'd make.


>>Just make sure that it's easy for a user to create ebooks

Excellent point. I should have mentioned that. We should have both an easy ebook creator and an easy way for anyone to add their ebook to the store. We should enable all our users to be publishers if they want to. The Rocket ebook folks were working on features like that.

Jeffrey Siegel said...

I enjoyed your posting about the Info Pad. I have some experience in the field - my Gestures was on the cover of MacWeek back in 1989 when MacWeek was important. That technology was eventually rolled into a grant that NIH funded to detect learning disabilities in children from their handwriting. It was fun and rewarding and eventually got me into medical devices (I'm a small hardware manufacturer but software is really my thing).

Anyway, it strikes me that your idea isn't a hardware idea. It's a software one. Why should this background-indexing-notetaking product be linked to any one device? Why not have the software ready to run on all devices (UMPC's, Treo's, UIQ, etc.)?

I've thought about the indexing thing before and have some experience with handling ink and recognition. It isn't easy but there certainly are some fuzzy logic search technologies that could lend themselves to searching for text in ink...or searching for ink BY inking a search request. I think that the missing piece would be that the ink should be stored on a server across the net. Let the server throw some weight at the search task. Autobackup of ink. Subscription. Etc.

You most definitely remember Aha!'s InkWriter product?

If VC's want a software product to fund, pitch the next generation ink word processor. MS Word hasn't done that badly...

Michael Mace said...

I just found a very nice set of articles on the Iliad ebook reader, here, here, and here. The author, Branko Collin, found the same problems with slow screen refreshes that I saw in the Sony ebook. It's a drawback in the current generation of e-ink screens, unfortunately.

The articles are interesting reading, with lots of details.

Mike

Michael Mace said...

Thanks for the comments, Jeff! [Full disclosure: Jeff e-mailed his comments to me, and I asked permission to share them here because I thought he made interesting points.]


>>it strikes me that your idea isn't a hardware idea. It's a software one.

Your idea of making the info pad product just software was something that some of my VC friends also proposed. My concern is that I don’t think software alone can launch the market, at least initially. You need a hardware proof of concept at a minimum, to show the hardware clone guys what to copy, and to validate customer demand for it.

When I was at PalmSource, we pitched almost every licensee on an info pad type product, and none of them got excited. It was especially tough with the Asian consumer electronics companies -- they generally just want to copy things.

If software alone were enough to make the market take off, I think EverNote would have done it by now.


>>You most definitely remember Aha!'s InkWriter product?

I had totally forgotten about InkWriter. Thanks for mentioning it. That’s exactly the right way to handle notes. I sure hope the failed tablet inventore didn’t end up owning fundamental patents on note-taking. That could really crimp development.

By the way, I like your server idea, although I think the info pad should also be able to operate independently when coverage is down. Mobile wireless coverage just isn't reliable enough yet, at least in the US.

Anonymous said...

I work for a french company that does provide HWR technology.
We have a product called InkSearch that does index your notes. The quality is even better than recognition because it's not a free recognition of all words but a verification for every written word that it can be the word you are searching:

MyScript InkSearch


Integrate this techology into an anoto pen would be a good idea, and here the form factor (book size) is choosen by the user, even if the pen is kind of big.
--
Laurent

Jim Barr said...

EXCELLENT article!

When can I buy one?!? Where can I buy one?!? ;)

Seriously, though. here's another design concept to think about: Leverage the flip-cover to do something functional.

I used to have a Palm Vx with Palm's hard case, and its design got me thinking. What if the back part of the case contained a battery? (Very flat, but taking up most of the back's space.) Next, what if the front part of the case contained WiFi circuitry and an antenna? (Again, flat, compact, but using the space.) FInally, make the spine-part (the part of the case that slides into the PDA's "silo") was actually a "connector" that elecetrically connected the case to the PDA? Or maybe just use the concept, but make the cover/battery/WiFi part permanently integrated.

You end up with a slim, light-weight PDA without a case, or a slightly larger, slightly heavier, fully protected PDA with extra battery life and WiFi capability. Talk about flexible! (OK, and maybe expensive.)

My point is that there are components or accessories in current PDA's that, though useful, could be "enhanced" leveraged to provide added function.

Thoughts?

Michael said...

Anyone have a napkin to help me wipe the drool off my chin?

Mike, you're KILLING ME with this article. It's as if you were describing a dream device for me. I'm ready to buy one. Oh how painfull it is to know I can't. :)

Jim Barr said...

Michael,

I know the niche you describe is the Information lovers, and the Info Pad could certainly handle lots of information types. I really like the digital "ink" idea, but how would someone input information that would be sharable with others--other than image data? How would you handle the possible need of actually translating image data into text in those cases when text would be more appropriate?

For example, say I want to write a letter to a friend or co-worker. I could certainly write it out in digital ink on the Info Pad, but what would it look like when it gets sent? Would I just email him the graphic image, or would I have to go through some "convert to text" process, handling and managing all the HWR corrections? That would be obviously tedious at best.

Or would the Info Pad not be the appropriate device for this task?

Michael Mace said...

Nice comments, folks.


Laurent wrote:

>> We have a product called InkSearch that does index your notes.

That's the idea! And I like the UI you guys have done for the product -- there's a nice demo on your website.


Michael wrote:

>>I'm ready to buy one. Oh how painfull it is to know I can't. :)

Tell me about it. I'm confident that some day we'll all have info pads. But I want one NOW.


Jim wrote:

>>say I want to write a letter to a friend or co-worker. I could certainly write it out in digital ink on the Info Pad, but what would it look like when it gets sent? Would I just email him the graphic image, or would I have to go through some "convert to text" process...? That would be obviously tedious at best.

Yeah, it would be tedious. On the other hand, handwriting recognition itself is tedious, so I'm not sure how you'd make it easy to create a printed letter with the info pad.

My personal bias is that there's a fundamental divison between a PC and an info pad. The PC is designed for heavy-duty document creation and editing. When you want to type, you should use a PC.

The info pad is for note-taking on the go and information access. I think that if we try to make it into a PC replacement, we'll overbuild it and it'll turn back into a tablet PC.

So may main answer is that I think writing a printed document is a task you should use a PC for.

Having said that, the info pad would be open to third party software. We might get developers doing all sorts of interesting programs. Maybe on-device recognition, or a server-based solution that would send bitmaps to a heavy-duty recognition server and ship text back to the device.

Or, as someone once suggested in a meeting in Palm, you could set up a service that would send your handwriting to a roomful of people in Bangalore who would read the document, type it out in English, and send it back to you. He thought that might actually be cheaper and higher-accuracy than trying to make handwriting recognition work prefectly on a computer.

Michael Mace said...

Credit where it's due

I want to acknowledge the contributions a number of my coworkers at Palm made to the vision for an info pad. We kicked a lot of product ideas back and forth between us over the years, and they improved my thinking enormously.

I forgot to mention this in my post. Nobody's complained to me about it, but the omission was bugging me.

Marty Fouts said...

*cough*Nokia 770*cough*

Anonymous said...

Marty,

Take a cough drop. The 770 is not the answer. I regret that Palm has the Treo blinders so firmly in place. The info pad idea is what the PDA could and should morph to. It takes inot account all the 40 and 50 somethings that need the print a little bigger (part of why I am not a Treonaunt) Use of the Palm OS is good as I suspect that the developers would be more than happy to scale up the display to tap into such a market.

If you could get a major book publisher to bite you could bundle it with a package of e-books. Kind of like the cell phone contract scheme. The padd is "free" with the cost of the e-books. The publisher (or school for that matter) could make back the cost of the unit in savings in production, shipping, and storage costs. I see the academic market lapping this up. They could turn out (and sell) etexts more frequently by charging a lower price but still makeing the same (or better)net. School districts would have zero storage and upkeep costs for old books and no pressure to hold on to outdated texts. In fact that could be part of the hook. The school district could purchase a license to "print" as many texts as they need with annual updates and the like. The publishers would love this because it would effectively kill the used book market. The text could be (pardon me while I gag here as I hate the DRM concept:)) locked to the info pad. Its elegant when you think about it as that could address the whine you hear about pirate copies. If the text is DRMed to the pad then its just like a dead tree book. You lose the pad, its like your ham handed lab partner ruining your textbook by knocking an acid solution on it during class (sorry college flashback there :))

It would be nice for some VC to come out of the woodwork on this or Steve Jobs decide to cleam out the loose change under his car seat.

Rick Cartwright

Shawn Barnett said...

Worked at Pen Computing Magazine for years. Palm Editor. Played with a lot of tablets and handwriting recognition engines, wrote reviews on a few. Nothing clicked. A Palm with Graffiti made much more sense. The closest product that has ever approximated your vision was among the first to run Graffiti: the Apple Newton Message Pad. I fire up the two I have periodically just to refresh my memory of how good it was. But it didn't need Graffiti to succeed; as most know it was bashed for "poor" handwriting recognition and never got a foothold. It was ahead of its time, to be sure.

Had it matured, you would not be wanting this device, you'd be using it to post to your blog, and do most everything else you do on a computer. It was there. It was planned, and built in, and ready to blossom as programmers expanded the Newton world.

But it will never be. No one who has seen the failure of the Newton will ever fund anything like it. Sorry, I'm getting a bit cynical about the handheld industry as I watch one of my favorite companies (Palm) continue to founder, squandering the lead they still have despite themselves.

They should have experimented with form factors, input methods, and software philosophies like this long ago. Instead they've left folks like you and me dreaming of interface ideas that Microsoft can only continue to hack at. Ironically, Microsoft is the one with the cash to continue trying this over and over. But unlike Windows 3.0, they won't get it the third, fourth, or fifth time. They have a good idea man, but he's not forceful enough or else not picky enough to make it work properly.

I hope I'm wrong, Michael, because I'd like what you describe as well. After the Newton, the Palm is the only device and OS that comes close to your vision, and I know it's quite far off. Some software apps have danced around the ideas you express, but just stuff it into a computer with an operating system that uses the same old icons and pulldowns that we have on big computers. Not far from the Xerox Star of the early 1980's.

You might do better to propose not hardware but an OS that can run on a tablet of your choosing (Fujitsu would be nice, but there are dozens of others). Add whatever flap or do-daddle you like from a factory in Taiwan. From there you could branch out to other devices. To make what you desire, you need something like the Newton OS, which attempted to rethink how a computer works, and more importantly how people interact with computers. You're halfway there. Just drop the hardware half of your plans. (And please, revisit Magic Cap/BOB for an example of what NOT to do.)

Michael Mace said...

More comments. Cool!


Marty wrote:

>>Nokia 770

I should've mentioned it. The 770 has some of the right ideas, although I was underwhelmed by it when I finally got to touch one at CTIA. I kept thinking, "is that all?" But I didn't have much time with it, so that might be unfair.

As an info pad, I think the 770 is a bit too small and the four hour battery life's not nearly long enough (although maybe the batteries last longer if you turn off WiFi). I hope Nokia will continue to iterate on it, though.


Rick wrote:

If you could get a major book publisher to bite you could bundle it with a package of e-books. Kind of like the cell phone contract scheme....The publishers would love this because it would effectively kill the used book market. The text could be (pardon me while I gag here as I hate the DRM concept:)) locked to the info pad.

Wow, nice thought, Rick. I had been assuming that an ebook would be an unmitigated negative for any publisher, but I hadn't thought about the used textbook market. I've got to think about that some more; it could change the economics of the market. Thanks!


Shawn wrote:

But it will never be. No one who has seen the failure of the Newton will ever fund anything like it. Sorry, I'm getting a bit cynical about the handheld industry

Hey, we're both a bit cynical, for good reason. But I am sure someone's going to do the info pad sometime. Companies are dancing all around the edges of it right now -- the 770, the Sony and Philips ebook tablets, etc. At some point someone's going to get it right, either deliberately or by accident, and then afterwards everyone will be standing around saying what a shock it was that the market took off.

Just like they did about Palm in its day (which, remember, was funded after the Newton failed -- but also remember how much trouble it had getting funded).


You might do better to propose not hardware but an OS that can run on a tablet of your choosing (Fujitsu would be nice, but there are dozens of others). Add whatever flap or do-daddle you like from a factory in Taiwan.

That almost is what I'm proposing -- there are a ton of tablet-like designs floating around the ODM world. But they won't be available in stores unless you spend the money to pick one of them, tweak it, and order it in enough volume to get it launched. That's where the $20 million comes in.

By the way, no one's called me yet with the cash, but I'm still hoping this will get cross-posted to a VC weblog or something. ;-)


Jim wrote

I used to have a Palm Vx with Palm's hard case, and its design got me thinking. What if the back part of the case contained a battery? ....Next, what if the front part of the case contained WiFi circuitry and an antenna? .... FInally, make the spine-part (the part of the case that slides into the PDA's "silo") was actually a "connector" that elecetrically connected the case to the PDA?

Sorry I forgot to respond to this earlier, Jim.

Palm actually designed and patented just such an expansion technology, with an eye to doing the sort of intelligent cases and covers you described (I wanted one that would have a keyboard on the inside). I think we called it an "expansion rail" or something like that.

The idea was eventually dropped. I'm not sure why. Maybe a reader who knows could post something.

Shawn Barnett said...

Re: "Expansion Rail"/stylus silo connector

I don't know what the name was, but I was told by someone on the Palm V team (a highly placed source who you surely know) that it didn't pass the "can we leave it out?" test. That test was usually run through the mind of Mr. Hawkins. In retrospect, it's tough to know whether Jeff was right or wrong; but the V was a terribly successful product, so it probably didn't hurt to leave it out.

Had it worked, we might still have products with the Palm V heritage with live, interchangeable covers for expansion, and HotSync ports that allow you to hang/dock the V on your monitor or laptop.

I do hope your Info Pad happens too. I'll bag the cynicism for a few and try to send some good vibes your way on the 20 million (because vibes are all I can generate at the moment).

Michael Mace said...

Shawn wrote:

I was told by someone on the Palm V team (a highly placed source who you surely know) that it didn't pass the "can we leave it out?" test. That test was usually run through the mind of Mr. Hawkins. In retrospect, it's tough to know whether Jeff was right or wrong; but the V was a terribly successful product, so it probably didn't hurt to leave it out.

Ahhhh, interesting. The time I encountered the idea, I think it was being considered for a product in the timeframe of the m505. That was after Jeff left the company.

It wouldn't surprise me if the idea was considered and shot down several times.

The thing about innovations like this is that they're always optional and a pain in the neck to implement. The only things that are mandatory are boring changes like higher-res screen and more memory. Unless some visionary puts his/her foot down and demands it, a company almost never adopts the really interesting right-angle ideas.

This is why Apple succeeds -- Steve has pretty good judgment, and he's not at all afraid to insist on his ideas.

The lesson for other companies: if you want to lead, find someone with good judgment/vision and empower them to make firm decisions.

David Beers said...

Mike, you're certainly describing the device I've been looking for for years now. One thing that most of the contenders for this space still haven't grepped is the simplicity aspect. It really does have to be dirt-simple. iPod simple. A PC won't cut it.

Interesting piece in yesterday's Christian Science Monitor about how half of all returned consumer gadgets (~$50B worth) are returned in perfect working order. The presumption is that a large percentage of these returns are because people can't be bothered to figure out how to use them:
http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0515/p13s02-stct.htm

How many didn't buy in the first place because they couldn't figure out what to do in the first 15 seconds after picking the thing off the shelf? Or because the thing took more than 30 seconds to boot?

I'd *love* to write software for a product like you describe. And I agree that it's just a matter of time before someone hits on it and finds the funding for it. Sincerest wishes that you get a chance to try!

Michael Mace said...

David wrote:

It really does have to be dirt-simple. iPod simple. A PC won't cut it.

Yes! I think that whoever finally makes the info pad should think of it as a note-taking appliance that also happens to be programmable, rather than as a "computer." As soon as you start thinking computer, you try to make the product general-purpose, which inevitably compromises the core feature that most users are actually willing to pay for.

I think the most important thing I learned from my years with the Palm folks is that in a mobile device, what you leave out is often more important than what you build in. That's a completely foreign idea to the PC industry.

Branko Collin said...

The note-taking for the Irex Iliad is almost instantaneous. The difference in page-turning speed between the Iliad and my Palm Zire was shocking. I always considered the Palm to be a little bit slow--that is to say, you can see the screen refresh taking place, but the Iliad is in a slowness category of its own.

So I was a bit surprised that the sketching went so fast, but I did not inquire further as to the reason.

British broadcaster Channel 4 have a clip that shows the annotation speed of the Iliad (Windows Media required). The sketching takes place about 2 minutes and 4 seconds into the clip.

And yes, I am ego surfing. :D

Michael Mace said...

Hi, Branko.

Thanks for dropping by, and no need to apologize for ego surfing -- you did a great job on that series of articles.

Thanks for the link to the video. You're right about the note-taking -- it's almost fast enough to be usable (I think the lag you see is just enough to be distracting, as is the lag in Tablet PC note-taking).

I presume they can do it fairly quickly because they're just flipping the bits where the pen touches. I should have thought of that; I'm used to computer screens where you refresh the whole screen.

So maybe there's more hope than I thought for note-taking on an e-paper device.

Now if we could just get Philips to cut the price of the Iliad by about 50%. The price I've seen translates to well over $600, which is about double the maximum for an info pad.

fiat lux said...

I have to say that I'm utterly uninterested in the device you describe, Mike, but since by your classification, I'm a communication lover with a side order of entertainment, that's not too surprising.

Michael Mace said...

That's cool, Fiat. I don't think there's such a thing as an ultimate device in the mobile world, and the sooner the manufacturers and operators understand that the sooner we'll get the sort of product selection we need. Vive la difference!

So what would be your perfect device? Is it a Blackberry with an iTunes client on it?

Avi Greengart said...

Michael,

I read your manifesto (that was NOT a short blog post) with skepticism, but was gradually won over by the cogent argument. I've been focused on form factor lately (shameless plug: http://www.currentanalysis.com/r/2006/s/wirelessformfactor-5-1.htm) and have concluded that some things *can't* converge onto the cellphone, and that PC's can't get smaller without compromising keyboard usability.

But that hasn't stopped MSFT/Samsung/Sony/Nokia from trying to find a mid-sized tablet to sell, so I think we'll get your Info Pad eventually by accident.

Scenario 1: Someone will try to differentiate their tablet with an e-ink or high res LCD screen and a note taking app. It will be too expensive for the mass market and won't have good enough battery life for the majority of Information Lovers, but the early adopter segment will try it out and fall in love. If the line's product manager keys on this new customer and has enough budget and clout for a follow-up, a more optimized version could be the result.

Scenario 2: If Nokia comes out with a larger form factor 770 - which they would target as a home web tablet, not a note taker - you've pretty much got your hardware platform (again without enough battery life, but with an open source platform ready for all kinds of software). I recently met the 770's product manager, and they're actively looking for expandable niche uses for the 770, so I'm fairly confident that if a larger 770 was built, it could evolve quickly into a true Info Pad. I doubt Nokia would get into the content side, though. Nokia's DNA is to sell millions of devices open to whatever content you want to put on it. Nokia has done content portals, though, and might choose to emulate the Apple model if the alternative is someone else setting up a DRM scheme on top of their device.

Here's hoping, anyway. I think I want one of these, too. :)

-avi

Brian said...

This post rings true to my heart! Caution: this is from the perspective of a lowly med student with NO ties to the corporate world.

I've been trying to use technology to help me learn for quite a while. I'm a palm fan myself, but an interested in the 770 form factor. From an educational/studying point of view the most important feature(s) is the ability to link notes w/ books w/ websites, etc. Logos software has a good concept of how ebooks should be designed and accessed by the user, but are still a bit immature (IMHO - very humble). A OneNote approach is needed, of course, for taking notes during class. And it would be nice to have a document viewer built in (we often get PPTs online and it would be nice to follow along during lecture and take notes directly on each slide).

Other features from the student POV: integrated dictionary, robust flashcard/HyperCard like program, web browser (Wikipedia is amazingly easier to access for medical knowledge than my bulky textbooks :)

Also, if marketing to the education community, it seems that some type of program that holds class schedules, assignments, check lists, integrated reading, etc., etc., is in need. I realize, however, that this deviates from your original focus.

One final thought: barriers to ebooks often include interface and familiarity to books. When I pull a book off of the bookshelf, I do so visually, not because I deliberately remember the title name (much less author). And when I open up a book, the particular piece of knowledge I am looking for is always on the same part of the page, roughly a certain thickness into the book. We use these physical clues to get the information we are looking for and do so subconsciously. A very intuitive user interface is badly needed for ebook software (aside from casual reading, I suppose).

(please note that this was written during a boring biostats lecture)

-Brian

fiat lux said...

So what would be your perfect device? Is it a Blackberry with an iTunes client on it?

Close. More like a Treo with the form factor of a Razr. I really, really love clamshell designs -- not having to buy a case for my device is a huge plus in my book.

Given that my music collection is 10+ gb and growing, I suspect I need a dedicated MP3 player, but being able to stuff a gb or 2 of my favorites onto a 2nd device might be useful.

Michael Mace said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!


Avi wrote:

>>that was NOT a short blog post

Yeah, I've gotten that comment privately from a few folks. My favorite was, "I needed a second cup of coffee to get through it."

I think I've now identified the outer limits of acceptable length for a blog post. I'll try to keep things a little punchier in the future.


>>Scenario 1: Someone will try to differentiate their tablet with an e-ink or high res LCD screen and a note taking app....If the line's product manager keys on this new customer and has enough budget and clout for a follow-up, a more optimized version could be the result.

I like it. How about we try to lobby Philips on this one? I noticed in the visitor log that somebody from Philips read this post the other day. I'm hoping they were from the right part of the company. Unfortunately, there are many thousands of employees at Philips, so the odds are low.


>>Scenario 2: If Nokia comes out with a larger form factor 770...you've pretty much got your hardware platform .... I recently met the 770's product manager, and they're actively looking for expandable niche uses for the 770

I don't know if this would be pushing the limits of proper behavior for an analyst, but I'd be glad to chat with him/her if you want to do a referral. Either that or you can just lobby them directly ;-)


>I doubt Nokia would get into the content side, though.

That's okay, once an info pad is out there in good numbers, I think the publishing thing will happen almost on its own. Nokia would stand to make a lot of money if they worked the publishing side of the product, but no harm to the market if they leave that to third parties.


Brian wrote

>>Caution: this is from the perspective of a lowly med student with NO ties to the corporate world.

No need for caution, Brian. You are what folks in the Valley sometimes call a "normal human being" (meaning your perspective hasn't been completely co-opted by working in Silicon Valley). So please speak up!


>>Logos software has a good concept of how ebooks should be designed and accessed by the user

Just to check, do you mean the Logos Bible software folks, or a different Logos software? I'm asking because there appear to be several software companies using similar names.


>>Other features from the student POV: integrated dictionary, robust flashcard/HyperCard like program, web browser (Wikipedia is amazingly easier to access for medical knowledge than my bulky textbooks :)

Cool, another endorsement of Wikipedia. Although the thought of someone using it for medical reference makes me the teeniest bit nervous.

I like your suggested apps, by the way.


>>some type of program that holds class schedules, assignments, check lists, integrated reading, etc., etc., is in need. I realize, however, that this deviates from your original focus.

I'd say you're focusing toward a particular market, which is a good thing.

By the way, I think that if we bundle a good Hypercard-like program and get a lot of info pads on campus, it will be trivially easy for the school to publish schedules and assignments using that tool.


>>A very intuitive user interface is badly needed for ebook software

You mad a very good point about the ergonomics of books. It's something I hadn't thought through.


Fiat wrote

(regarding her ideal device) More like a Treo with the form factor of a Razr.

I like it! And I know what we could name it too: "The Samsung i500 Done Right."

Brian said...

>>Just to check, do you mean the Logos Bible software folks, or a different Logos software? I'm asking because there appear to be several software companies using similar names.

Yes, Logos Bible software.

>>Cool, another endorsement of Wikipedia. Although the thought of someone using it for medical reference makes me the teeniest bit nervous.

I smiled when I wrote this (a bit tongue-in-cheek, to be honest). Actually, we just had a professor fired for plagiarizing Wikipedia, among other sources. So no need to worry, it's frowned upon GREATLY by the medical community as well :)

Liam @ Web 2.5 Blog said...

I'm a constant user of the NEC LitePad tablet PC, and I drive it entirely by pen. If it were smaller I would definitely carry it more often, and take occasional handwritten notes with it.

In my experience, an "infopad" must also have text input, and it CANNOT be via handwriting; longhand input is too slow and tiring even when recognition is perfect and instantaneous. What does that leave? Either a clumsy on-screen key layout like Fitaly, or...

shorthand.

I wrote a tablet PC shorthand product called AlphaTap. It's based on a simple vocabulary, with which you can write the most common english words with one or two strokes of the pen. The strokes are overlaid on an ergo key layout. It works quite well, but admittedly it's not as fast as typing, it takes a while to master, and you have to look at the layout while stroking it.

Were a shorthand method to appear that is as fast as typing, no more difficult to learn, and which doesn't require watching the pen, you might have a winner. It might catch on slowly; many more young people would learn it than adults.

Shorthand eliminates the distinction between handwriting and text input. That would be a Good Thing.

Michael Mace said...

Liam wrote:

>>In my experience, an "infopad" must also have text input

Okay, so we just disagree on that one. No problem.


>>I wrote a tablet PC shorthand product called AlphaTap...It works quite well, but admittedly it's not as fast as typing, it takes a while to master, and you have to look at the layout while stroking it.

To me, that last drawback is key -- I think an info pad fails if you have to think about using it. You're competing with paper, after all.


>>Were a shorthand method to appear that is as fast as typing, no more difficult to learn, and which doesn't require watching the pen, you might have a winner.

Yeah, and if a foolproof speech recognition system appeared all our problems would be solved as well.

I'm skeptical that it'll be possible anytime in the reasonable future to create a shorthand system that's easy to learn, as fast as typing, and produces nearly flawless character recognition on a computer. But I agree that it would be cool if it happened.

Thanks for the comments!

Liam @ Web 2.5 Blog said...

I'm skeptical that it'll be possible anytime in the reasonable future to create a shorthand system...

To my knowledge, noone has tried. Learning touch-typing is hard. There are only 42 English phonemes, and in my experience, it's not hard to master a vocabulary of 250 shorthand strokes.

But we can cheer up, it won't be long before the neural implant for speech recognition debuts :-)

Michael Mace said...

Liam wrote:

>>There are only 42 English phonemes, and in my experience, it's not hard to master a vocabulary of 250 shorthand strokes.

Fair enough. I haven't ever tried shorthand, so I probably shouldn't dis it. And if nothing else, I think a shorthand app would be a great third party product for an info pad.


>>cheer up, it won't be long before the neural implant for speech recognition debuts

At the rate things are going, I'm worried that a lot of the innovations we're waiting for won't happen before the Singularity.

For example, we'll probably have telescopes that can image earthlike planets around other stars before we land a human being on Mars. I don't think anyone expected that. And it sometimes seems like we'll be transmitting our consciousness across the globe before we'll be able to buy a flying car. (Not necessarily because the Singularity is so close, but because the flying car is taking so #&^%$ long.)

You struck a nerve. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Why not start by getting the sketching and indexing software to work on a Lifedive ... It should be enough to prove the concept.

Best regards,
Pedro

PS: It’s a pleasure to read your articles.

Michael Mace said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Pedro.

Actually, I did a little prototype Palm OS program, to test the concept. It wasn't fully functional, but I wanted to play with the idea and explore the UI. Due to my very limited programming skills, it was not all that impressive. But I was able to convice myself that:

1. I liked the idea.

2. You'd need different hardware to really make it sing. The Palm screen, even on a LifeDrive, is just too darned tiny.

3. I didn't have the programming chops to write it on my own.

So instead I decided to try to publicize the idea. Hopefully at some point someone will "steal" the idea and make a great business out of it. All I ask is that they make me a beta tester!

E. Dalton said...

This blog entry got referenced over at MobileRead and now a bunch of us are coveting this device. Perhaps the way to get one is to get one of the eBook reader makers to produce it as a variation? ETI is rumored to be working on a nextgen eBook device, which might fit the bill, if it has an open OS. Otherwise, you might check out Bookeen. They seem willing to produce devices to spec. One group (the SF fans at Baen's Bar) got an estimate that if they would pre-order 1000 units, they could get them at $300 ea. That probably didn't include a touchscreen, but it might be worth checking with them to see how many units you'd need to order to get the high-resolution display and touchscreen with the other features. They do advertise Linux as the default OS. By default, I think they use E Ink, but experiments by user-developers with the iLiad have shown that there may be software-based slowdowns which could be fixed to make the E Ink display fast enough to make a good Info Pad. If you could arrange to have the hardware built by someone who already has made some of the production investment, you won't need to raise so much capital to get going on the software side.

Shane said...

The HTC Athena, or Ameo, appears to me to be the closest device that I have seen to the "Info Pad":
http://www.brighthand.com/default.asp?newsID=12756

Apart from the description of the Info Pad, I have long thought there was a gap in the market for a device somewhere in between a PDA and a UMPC. I am involved in mobile mapping, and encounter many customers who want a device that is slightly larger than a PDA, but are not wanting a tablet PC. I thought the UMPC had potential, but I think it is over-priced to meet this market's needs.

Branko Collin said...

The HTC Arena looks like a fat smartphone to me. The screen is way too small.

Michael Mace said...

Branko wrote:

>>The HTC Arena looks like a fat smartphone to me. The screen is way too small.

I had the same reaction, but one of the online reports said they're making another version with a seven-inch screen. Dump the keyboard and sell that device, and I think we'd be getting close to the right hardware...

Thanks for the pointers, Shane and e. dalton.

Tony said...

I totally missed this great post amidst the iPhone chaos. Glad for archives.

The InfoPad is here!

It's just scattered in many products :-(

I wish I can just tell you to get a DealMac on a Palm TX and use the default timeStamping NotePad, but that Indexing is amiss?

I too am one of the vast eager infohungry market forgotten 'frustrated' users in need of a support group or new fix. My gadget rss feeds only exist for the day when(ever) your admired InfoPad is born. It's like unrequited love for a fantasy.

Nevertheless, here's some thoughts ruminating over the years (that's literal)

Hardware:
Who Makee? DIY? Feeling Crafty?
As for 'manufacture' in horological parlance, for $20 mill to go far you have to hit up one of these no-name dap folks You know that bottom rung trying to make a name for themselves: Coby, Tomato, Mio, Rhubarb, etc. They know their stuff and can push to niche market if you have the domestic marketing muscle of blog sites/forums and well placed reviews to generate buzz. I once had the pleasure of writing a review for these receptive customizers and they blossomed into a licensee, so gambles can pay off.

Why don't these DAP chasing-iPod-wannabe companies think outside the box or rather class of device?
Maybe your post needs to be translated into Korean, Japanese, and Mandarin? :-)

FormFactor: Convinced my wife to buy the SonyReader so I can play with :-) We love it (form)

It's the perfect size and you're right they ain't got the content to be the iTunes of eBooks.good for the ManyBooks, though. Basically take a AlphaSmart Dana chop it in half and kill the QWERTY for a larger screen :-)
My Screen or My Life: aka The digitalizer is in the details aka it-ain't-worth-a-whit-if-u-can't-writ

It's the same old story, Palm loyalists loads them apps/ebooks/etc, supports ISVs, PDAs become Sharp Organizer commodities and the innovation and ecosystem flower withers. I move to moleskinny Paper.

Opps nope let's rewind that: The market buys into InfoPad, all is merry then the digitizer fails. Lest we repeat that debacle, we need that InfoPad hardware screen to be rock solid. We need to hit up the manufacture to get a good Phillips screen or maybe the SD cheerleader

Camera is good, but I have this whiteboard capture software before the IP got bought out and agree that the InfoPad camera's got to be at least 1.3 megapixels
All the rest of your specs are perfecto, though I'd like a discount on the a PCMCIA-less version :-)
Until the data drug dealing carrion, opps carriers get real, I don't feel that communicado.

Software: The InfoPad harkens to be an early Hawkins nemesis: Paper? Be as good as paper.(side note: I don't think there's a secret Jeff 'device' more like secret algorithm that maybe will interface nicely with InfoPad's associative Bayesian inference indexing ideals - think Spotlight on Steroids pumping on Binaries)

Back to our program: I looked into digital ink Palm OS side of things and surprising found a wide variety within the same 160x160 post-it theme. Ever since Ian Barclay put out BugMe and Mitch Blevin moved that forward with DiddleBug, I've been totally InfoPad obsessed. dateTimeStamping ink records was a great idea but it failed to live to commercial viability
Long time Palm OS supporter, Vince even couldn't make a great run of TealNotes
This is pretty promising: vaporware NinerPad of the great NinerPaint that I hope will come into being.
Pennovate Notes is a nice try but fails the seamless digital ink like speed/flow test unlike that old but goody DiddleBug
All these are great but these individual efforts need to be more industrially robust for the InfoPad. The sketcher team needs to play nice with the indexing team to make sweet music. I'd like to see an interface between the plain text and binary worlds where human 'gestures' are machine readable and interchangeable and mappable.

Porting? What about InfoPad in a VM!? Fugettaboutit.

So the Nokia N800 comes out. But that really is a different animal, isn't it?
Nokia is doing the grand OSS experiment and others are playing
But 2nd gen still looks skittish beyond the hype: (gems near bottom of post --> embedded N800 software design and the Maemo set-up). Frightened by this design prospect, I follow this until the endless beta becomes final. Shoving in the software into hardware not spec'd for it increases dev time, taxes ordinary usersbase rah rah. Unless you want to call up dead Apple ghosts - WooHoo, Einstein anyone?
Lesson is from Job's keynote: hardware matches software - make both and do it yourself.

Evangelism:
Also, it makes me realize that great ideas need the vigorous support of enthusiastic users (Pick me! Pick Me!) and that old tech isn't necessarily useless tech, just forgotten by the uninformed analystHouses, FicklePublic and flybyPress.

Renaissance is good. Look at the resurg in GtD, heck I read that in 2001! or MoleScan (my new name for your InfoPad)

There is serious apathy here if a 1997 Apple smacks down big global innovation. Take that UMPC.

As for looking at the pen solution: Just say no to Anoto, er rather do i have to replenish my paper?!
AceCad memo or Pegasus is a better fit for unencumbered streams of consciousness. Or the new ultrasound kid on the block: Epos

Either way I yearn for this SimpleSlate. It's 'return' will bring back the Zen of (PC)alm in the cacaPhony of noisy designs of current.

I wish you all the best, my credit card standing by.

Best,
tony

Michael Mace said...

Wow, Tony, that's one of the best (and longest) comments ever posted to this blog. Thanks!

It'll take me a while to work through all the links, but I can already tell that I like the way you think.

Anonymous said...

Excellent! I'd buy it today.

After much thought i bought a window M5.0 phone (Tmobile MDA in the UK). i write notes on it all day... but the search functionality is very poor. it has its uses, but just doesn't cut it, and M5.0 is a shocker in places.

right now I know I want a Sony-E phone and an InfoPad!

record text, drawings, webpages and links - when and where they happend. perfect.

i've lost too many note books, and spent too many hours flipping throught the ones i have... please somebody - build an InfoPad... really, i'll put in an advanced order if it will help?!

Susan E. said...

This is the perfect device for people with ADD! I have tried using my various palms and windows handhelds this way but because they aren't "info pads" it doesn't work. By the way, I am an Attorney with ADD. Having an info pad would help me to keep up with all my notes from continuing legal ed seminars, local legal meetings, local court rule updates, local meetings with opposing attorneys or consulting attorneys, clients etc and would give me a way to cross reference with clients/local rules/CLE info etc and then down load into the computer to enter into my formal legal software. Encrypting the info will keep it secure while I carry it around and having the ability to keep ebooks and ebook readers, and games on my 4G SD card will also allow me to stay busy when my ADD kicks in and I get bored in the longer parts of CLEs, local meetings, etc.! I would love an INFO PAD that had Internet browse abilities so that I could quickly look up cases on line. Please build one somebody!
Susan Wilson

Anonymous said...

found the blog entry from a link in Nekokami's signature on MobileRead.com

The software you describe sounds like an updated version of the old "Lotus Agenda" application under DOS. I used this software for many years and it is what kept me from switching to Windows until Win98SE. It was that good of an application.

The person behind it has started Chandler and hopes to capture some of the magic of Agenda again although so far they have only developed a calendar system -- a good calendar system but still only the calendar part of it.

Your comments are intesting on the limits of the Sony Reader and I cannot disagree with them. (I do own and enjoy the Sony Reader.)

Getting data into the unit will and always has been the major problem to overcome. The Palm solution and I have never been friends and the concept of an external keyboard makes the whole thing unworkable.

I don't care what the OS is, it should never be a factor from a user's point-of-view. If it does what I want, what I need, it could be written in smalltalk for all I care. As a user KISS is my main criteria.

R. Wood

Huw said...

This is a great Idea, I want one already. I think size and runtime are very important, A5 at most and as thin as possible. Palm OS would be good but not the resourse hungry over complicated WinCE.

I think something like a PADD from star trek is probably ideal...

Klaus Reschke said...

Hi Mike,

I really like the Info Pad idea! You described it very well. We even talked a little bit about this at the interview I had with you at PalmSource a little over two years ago.

I had called it the Palm Tablet, but the size and shape were about the same. My price point at that time was much higher than yours at $800. I can see how great it would be to come out with one for around $299, especially since two years have gone by since then.


The top 5 things I would like to see included, listed in the order of importance, are:

1. Very clear way to see whatever I am reading or looking at in various sizes, levels of detail, layers, and lighting conditions [critically important] -- I do prefer color, especially for pictures, since a picture is worth a thousand words :)

2. Easy and fast navigation and interaction (selecting books, scrolling, moving around, etc.) [very important] -- I think we can all agree on this one

3. Powerful annotation system (more details below) [very important, and an area where the Info Pad can really distinguish itself from the others!!!] -- includes a touch screen

4. Quick word or object lookups in dictionaries, encyclopedias, thesauruses, and other reference materials including the internet to find its meaning and for spell checking [important, can be included in phases, and an other area where the Info Pad can distinguish itself from the others]

5. Support for all kinds of formats (text, web, graphics, email, PDFs, RDFs, MS Office docs, audio, videos, etc.) [important, and can be included in phases]



One item above that I would like to focus the rest of my feedback on is the annotation system. I see this as a big area we can really improve in, especially when trying to be 100% paperless.

Currently it is much easier to add highlighting and marks to a paper document than an electronic one. If you know of a great annotation system for all kinds of electronic documents, please let me know -- I have not seen any yet. (MS Word does a few things.)

The Info Pad is just begging to have a smart and powerful annotation system.

For example, I'd like to, at a minimum, be able to highlight, circle, underline, box, etc. any keywords, phrases, tables, diagrams, and other objects I come across while reading. I'd like to also attach my own comments, markings, drawings, bookmarks, tags, categories, cross-references, etc. to anything I want to.

After that, I'd like to have a smart annotation manager that automatically keeps track of all the annotations and the meta data associated with them, like time stamps, revision history, document locations, objects the annotations apply to and are near to, amount of annotations, ownerships, permissions, location in the world where the annotations were made at, etc.

This powerful annotation system will allow us to:

- search, sort, and filter annotations to quickly find what we are looking for;
- show annotations in the order added and where they occur most often;
- keep track of the bookmarks, tags, categories, etc.;
- generate indexes and documents around the items marked;
- set ownership, permissions, priorities, status, etc.;
- share annotations with others and view their annotations;
- group, merge, split, and manipulate annotations;
- do the above not only for a given document, but across all documents too, so you can see every annotation you or anyone else ever made;
- also do between document revisions;
- safely store and backup everything;
- easily view from anywhere; and
- much more.

This way I can easily add and see my annotations, just like on paper. But later I can quickly go back to them, which is much harder to do with paper, in order to find the important information I marked and make changes to it if necessary.

The icing on the cake is being able to share these annotations with others and see their annotations too. Then merge them all together, even with previous revisions of the same document. What a great way to give and collect feedback.


There is one more thing I would really love to be able to do someday with this Info Pad, besides highlighting and marking items as I read them (which in itself is great). I do not see any other devices that can currently do this (if you know of any, let me know):

1. While I am at a presentation, I would like to take clear and detailed pictures (and/or video) of the slideshow, whiteboard, movie, etc. that is being shown using the Info Pad (or a camera that can instantly communicate with it).

2. Then quickly add my own annotations (notes, drawings, etc.) directly on top of the pictures (and/or video) shown on the Info Pad's screen as I am listening to the presenter talk about them. This is something I always wished I could do, especially for important information.

3. Later I can go back to my annotations, quickly search them, add more details, share them, and do the things listed above,

Of course, if the presentation is being video taped like Google does for its TechTalks, then I do not need to do the above.

Instead I'll take notes on my Info Pad and it will keep track of the exact time I write, draw, or do anything, just like it does for any annotation.

Later, my Info Pad will connect to the video and its smart annotation system will automatically add my annotations to the proper places inside the video.

Now I can quickly jump to any place in the video and directly access the important information located there. Or generate a report showing only the most important parts of the video merged with my annotations... very powerful!


Let me know your thoughts.

If anyone is already working on this and would like some help, please let me know. I am sure Mike still has my contact information -- it has not changed.

Thanks,

Klaus Reschke
Interaction Design Consultant

scottlerman said...

The Apple Newton did (and does) what you want. Buy this relic of the future on ebay...

Anonymous said...

hmmm, I would add to the infopad an OCR program that would allow us to index as well the texts photographed with the tiny camera...

Michael Mace said...

>>I would add to the infopad an OCR program that would allow us to index as well the texts photographed with the tiny camera

Absolutely yes! What a great tool this would be for students. Although the Web is becoming a more and more important research tool, most of the world's books are not yet online, and this camera/OCR function would be a superb way to capture book notes when researching a paper.

Olivier said...

It seems to me that livescribe.com is working on the infopad concept. or ?

olivier

Michael Mace said...

That's the old Anoto pen technology. I know some of the guys working on it, and I have a ton of respect for them. But to be really honest, the Anoto technology has always felt to me like a really cool technology in search of a problem.

I personally need the recall capabilities of an info pad, not just the capture. So I want electronic ink from start to finish. I think that'll be a much more compelling solution, if someone just builds the right (&^%$ device.

quux said...

Michael,

I wanted to thank you for really digging down and thinking through the InfoPad concept - this is very much the device I have wanted to own for a decade or so. Kudos!

I'd like to toss one more idea into the hopper, possibly for 'InfoPad II' or 'InfoPad Jumbo'. The idea is: make it the size of an A4 page (US letter size), but folded in half. If it could open like a book, and lay flat or even 'click' rigidly into place fully open, you would then have two screens which together are approximately the size of one A4 page. One should also be able to fold the 'cover' 180 degrees, so that the device is about 8.5" x 5.5" (steno pad size) with screens on both sides.

Now add one tiny extra feature: the ability to 'print' to your InfoPad II. Now your InfoPad can replace most of the paper stuff you'd normally print out for reading on the couch, on the go, etc. A lot of people would be able to replace their printers with an InfoPad, and that would be a wonderful thing in many ways.

Holly Gates is showing a prototype unit that's about 5mm thick, so this seems do-able, though I am not sure how the hinge would work. Holly's prototype is here:

http://www.positron.org/projects/bluechute/

Anonymous said...

Have you looked at the Iliad recently ? The software is getting better and the screen refresh is faster.
In fact I am considering buying one at the moment. Your infopad solution is a bit flawed I use Evernote to store all my ideas and all important data. Basically your ideas have to be stored in a software solution and not a hardware solution ( breaks down, you loose it, no backups ).

Evernote can save my Iliad notes and has a really good Handwriting recognition. feedbooks helps me get all my infos on the Iliad.

Michael Mace said...

Wow, Quux, that prototype is really sweet. That's just the right size for an info pad, and thiner than I thought was possible today.

Anonyous, thanks for the comments about the iLiad. I haven't seen one lately, and I want to. If anyone knows of a store in the Bay Area that carries them, please post a comment.

By the way, the iLiad is about $400 too expensive for the market, unfortunately.

And yeah, an info pad has to include a backup function.

Anonymous said...

I would just love to get my hands on a device like what you describe. I actually used my Newton 130 (which I still have but sadly, is in a box) for taking notes in college quite successfully. I used the handwriting recognition feature when I could and turned off the automatic handwriting recognition when I needed to go faster. *basks in nostalgia*

Anonymous said...

So who's going to give Michael his 20 million bucks? I want one!

I've wanted one for ages actually and after thinking about the idea for years I came up with pretty much the same concept as Mr Mace did, so there is some kind of freaky Zeitgeist thing happening there. (Although it isn't really a mind blowing concept is it? The One Sketchbook To Rule Them All with a bunch of computer stuff thrown in to make the old idea work better.)

Unfortunately there's a Catch-22 to the whole thing: if one company built it around a closed source model (software/hardware/business method) it would go the same way as all the other devices that have come before it because the company would be too paranoid and/or to let anyone else have access too it and wouldn't have the resources to develop it to the point where it could actually be successful.

If an open source group tried to build it, they'd have massive problems getting cash to begin with and then find they can't do the thing anyway because Microsoft (or someone) owns too many of of the patents they need and either wouldn't let them use their IP or demand such a high price for it that the project would collapse.

This kind of thing really gives me the s*** with the patent system - so many people have got the ideas needed to build the info pad contained in a patent that is sitting on a shelf somewhere doing absolutely nothing.

Meh, anyway...great idea that would certainly work. I'll defiantly buy one as soon as someone gets their stuff together and builds it.

SwiftCoder said...

What would be the feeling about launching the software on the iPhone/iPod Touch, now that Apple is opening up for third-party developers?

Granted, the screen is a little small, and the price is a little steep, but in most other respects it has great potential.

The screen is perfectly capable of note taking, if one were to work out a stylus for it. The onscreen keyboard is an added bonus, as is the full WiFi connectivity.

As an ebook reader, the screen is too small for the "like a real book" concept - but I think the current generation of users (especially the college students) are quite capable of reading a book on this size of screen.

Battery life is not quite up to par yet, but Apple can likely be relied upon to dedicate a lot of resources to improving it, since it is in their best interests.

...

Serhei said...

@SwiftCoder

The screen is not just "a little" small, it's way too small. It might be an acceptable compromise for an ebook reader (because it ends up fitting in your pocket), but for the note-taking part what you're going to end up with is a large, expensive (due to the capacitive stylus) version of the Palm OS post-its app. It'll never be more than a niche product.

Certainly no one is going to care about it enough for it to be a labor of love, which is really what's needed for the info pad to work. All of the devices in the "Competitors" section are decidedly non-labors of love. In fact, they're all along the lines of:
* Let's cram a PC into a graphics tablet.
* Let's cram a PC into an oversized PDA box.
* Let's cram note-taking circuitry into a pen.
And yours is:
* Let's cram paper-like capabilities into the iPod Touch.
Be honest: would you actually use your idea? I'm guessing not, unless you actually like to take notes on post-its.

Sure, Apple could launch an ebook store and do so successfully (the chief problem is negotiation with the publishers), but that's not what an info pad is about.

Note-taking and document storage are two essential parts of the info pad. The ebook store is only a fraction of what an info pad should do, and the iPod Touch/iPhone will only be able to do this fraction with any semblance of effectiveness.

RedJ3k said...

And why not like a mini iBook-iMoleskine with two oled multitouchscreen. The first one used as a simple monitor...the other one used like a keyboard with keys that change aspects and function in order to improve the specific utilisation of programs you are using. Or you could fullspread "pages" of this iMoleskine to watch a movie in a doublesized display. Oled display is thin and hicontrast hires...so you could sketch as a moleskine, read as a ebook...and do whatever you want like on an iBook...watch films...wi-fi web surfing...ect...

We just have to wait until oled become cheaper...

What do you think about this idea?

Michael Mace said...

RedJ3k wrote:

>>Oled display is thin and hicontrast hires...What do you think about this idea?

I've been in love with OLED screens for a long time, and supposedly there's much less trouble with burn-in than there used to be. But I don't know if they have solved the battery life problem yet. Last time I checked, OLED displays used a lot of battery power because they put out so much light. If that's been fixed, I'd be much more comfortable with using them in an info pad.


>>Serhei wrote:

>>a labor of love...is really what's needed for the info pad to work

I think you nailed it.

The more I think about the info pad idea, and the more I talk with folks about it, the more I realize that it is its own class of device and you can't readily adapt adjacent devices to it (any more than you can easily make a GameBoy into an iPod). There are too many important feature trade-offs that have to be balanced just right.

RedJ3k said...

A great benefit of OLED displays over traditional liquid crystal displays (LCDs) is that OLEDs do not require a backlight to function. Thus they draw far less power and, when powered from a battery, can operate longer on the same charge. OLED-based display devices also can be more effectively manufactured than LCDs and plasma displays. But degradation of OLED materials has limited the use of these materials.
This is the life problem...
However I was thinking about something like that before reading about Mike Rohde idea...
I'll post soon the concept design of the object in DeviantArt if you want, if you like...
I accept suggestions about it...

Michael Mace said...

>>OLEDs do not require a backlight to function. Thus they draw far less power

I may be out of date on this one, but I thought OLEDs drew less power only if you displayed white text on a black background (so most of the pixels are unlit). If you display black text on a white background (which you would do in an info pad), then most of the pixels are lit and you burn a lot more power.

But maybe the power consumption per pixel has gone down since the last time I checked.

Are OLEDs available in an 8-inch diagonal form factor, and do you know the pricing? That's about the size you'd need for an info pad...


>>I'll post soon the concept design of the object in DeviantArt if you want

Yes, please do it and post a link to it here. Thanks!

RedJ3k said...

The upcoming (first of all commercialized product) 11-inch OLED TV with a thickness of 3mm to sell for $1,740. But the oled production technology is cheaper than lcd production. Now we pay the research that give us this awesome technology...we just have to wait for a while...2-3 years to buy Oled paying the real production price...
In my opinion the idea that can "rock" the market is the collaboration between Apple MacBook and Moleskine...a smart, all-in-one, ultraportable combination of two of the most stylish objects...The Third Millennium version of the Moleskine...Now it can truly stores every kind of discoveries and perceptions.

Michael Mace said...

>>11-inch OLED TV with a thickness of 3mm to sell for $1,740.

The thickness sounds wonderful, but that price is a complete showstopper for an info pad. It'll have to come down a lot. I think the screen cost needs to be well under $100 in order for the total price of an info pad to be affordable.

RedJ3k said...

This is my concept design:
http://redj3k.deviantart.com/art/iMoleskine-71144323
let me know what do you think about ...


Oled prices are now like prices of LCD five years ago...In five years prices and colors lifetime problems could be totally solved.

In my idea there is more than an info pad...surely it also could be more expensive...

RedJ3k said...

let me know what do you think about ...

Anonymous said...

For one-off creations, have you checked out any embedded PC solutions? I know VIa has their Mini, Nano, and Pico-ITX motherboards that could easily do what you want.

http://mini-itx.com/2007/06/02/via-epia-px-10000-pico-itx-review

mike said...

Yeah, I've been thinking of a device like this just recently. The one in my head is a lot more like a moleskin though. It sounds ambitious but the technology has been patented and is in development: the best would be for it to be completely flexible, so you could stick it in your back pocket and sit on it without hurting it or yourself. Aesthetically it should also be as simply elegant as a moleskin, none of this silly silver and chrome.
Would be really great to see something close to this on the shelves soon.

nairbv said...

How would you store these drawings though? just as black and white compressed bit-map images?

I mean, that creates issues for scaling anything you write. What if a new "infopad" comes out and the screen is a different size? Do you lose all your old data? I'd want to keep everything forever, which is a nice thing about having real digital text.

Likewise, without good seamless integration to desktop computers, fear of inevitable data loss when the device breaks or you stop making them would scare away a lot of customers. At a minimum, the data would have to all be in open standard accessible formats.

And what about viewing your data on a computer screen? Is it just going to look like a PDF where you zoom in and out and scroll around? pdf's are pain.

And then, you mention reading and marking up ebooks on this thing... This seems to be where it would be the biggest problem: If you're going to draw in an ebook, ... how do you get reflowable text? If you drew in a particular place on a fixed page, and then you changed your font size, ... your comments wouldn't make any sense anymore.

I can't imagine many people buying a device as an ebook reader if it didn't even have reflowable text.

Maybe the part about drawing sketches would be OK. I think for highlighting text in a book though, and for adding notes and such, having some way to enter real text would be a necessity. Likewise I think highlighting text in a book should be a digital markup, not just scribbles on a fixed page.

Michael Mace said...

Excellent questions and comments, Nairbv. Thanks very much.


>>How would you store these drawings though? just as black and white compressed bit-map images?

Probably grayscale. Even 16 levels of gray can do a nice job of anti-aliasing. And as storage capacity goes up and e-ink screen technology improves, I'd like to see it move to color.


>>I mean, that creates issues for scaling anything you write. What if a new "infopad" comes out and the screen is a different size? Do you lose all your old data? I'd want to keep everything forever.

Me too, and no way you would ever toss out any old data. Even if the screen resolution changes, there's no reason why the old notes pages would go obsolete. You'd just scale and smooth the bitmaps as needed. It's pretty easy to do algorithmically.


>>Likewise, without good seamless integration to desktop computers, fear of inevitable data loss when the device breaks or you stop making them would scare away a lot of customers. At a minimum, the data would have to all be in open standard accessible formats.

Agreed.


>>And what about viewing your data on a computer screen? Is it just going to look like a PDF where you zoom in and out and scroll around? pdf's are pain.

I think it could be easier to navigate than a PDF. No offense to Adobe, but Acrobat was designed first for fidelity to the printed page, and then second for navigation. I'd flip those priorities around.


>>And then, you mention reading and marking up ebooks on this thing... This seems to be where it would be the biggest problem: If you're going to draw in an ebook, ... how do you get reflowable text?

You attach the comments to a particular point in the text rather than a particular spot on the screen. Think Post-it notes.


>>I think highlighting text in a book should be a digital markup, not just scribbles on a fixed page.

Agreed. The highlighting function should be linked directly to the text, so you can reflow the book.

nairbv said...

Ah, I see. Yeah, I guess that makes more sense. Maybe that's how the iliad handles that issue too?

So, aside from the price, and maybe some maturation of the software, why isn't the Iliad what you want?

I know maybe the screen isn't *quite* good enough on the refresh rate yet, but if it was, at least right now wouldn't that make it more expensive?

Presumably the price of the Iliad will fall as the product (or some similar competitor) is produced in larger numbers, right?

Like wise the price and quality of the e-ink screens (or some other new technology) will bring down the prices of all such devices as the technology matures and becomes more widely adopted.

Without major changes in product direction, the iliad software would also probably keep approaching what you're looking for as it matures anyways, wouldn't it?

but this is all just a waiting game.

Are you just talking about some kind of marketing issue? Selling enough of them with a solid plan so that you can afford to sell them cheaper? I mean, I'll certainly join you in dreaming about $300 Iliads, but changing the name doesn't get us there any quicker...

Am I missing something in terms of a fundamental difference between the iliad and the infopad?

Or maybe this thread is older than the iliad? I'm in the "leave a comment" section so I don't see when the very first post was, but I see comments in 2006... and I have no idea when the iliad came out.

But, regardless of the age of the thread, I see you saying that for a 20 million dollar investment you could produce what you're looking to produce... but if it costs them 700 to sell an Iliad and 400 for the kindle which doesn't even have touch-screen, ... then, I'm just wondering how would you go about bringing a very similar device to the market so much cheaper?

Michael Mace said...

>>aside from the price, and maybe some maturation of the software, why isn't the Iliad what you want?....I know maybe the screen isn't *quite* good enough on the refresh rate yet

Yeah, if you cut the price in half, fundamentally rewrote the software (it's more than a tweak), and fixed the screen, you'd probably have a good info pad product. Certainly in terms of size and weight the Iliad is outstanding already.

But the software and pricing are huge changes.


>>Or maybe this thread is older than the iliad?

The Iliad and products like it were either shipping or pre-announced when the original post was written (in May of 06). But a lot of the posts here tend to turn into longer-term discussions, so don't worry too much about the original post date. This isn't a typical weblog in that respect -- it's more like a collection of essays that have some longevity to them.


>>I'm just wondering how would you go about bringing a very similar device to the market so much cheaper?

I've talked with a lot of friends who have heavy hardware experience, and I'm convinced that a ~$300 price is doable. You might have to use a conventional LCD in the first generation product, which isn't ideal, but at least you'd overcome the latency problem.

I have no idea why the price on the Iliad is so high.

Anonymous said...

This looks interesting:

http://www.engadget.com/2008/01/13/iriver-prepping-handwriting-friendly-e-book-tablet/

RedJ3k said...

Probably it's cause my idea is too much ambitious you didn't comment this sketch...:-(

http://redj3k.deviantart.com/art/iMoleskine-71144323

Curtis said...

I return to this post often hoping something or someone has an answer. I will keep waiting but I am surprised in this information age that this is not possible at least in part.

poli said...

Amazingly when I bought my Tungsten t3 I had idealized an Infopad.

I had previously had some 6 among PalmPilots and Handsprings and that device, with a decent resolution, bluetooth connection and an expansion slot (2 would be better) looked nearly perfect but for the screen size, still too small.

Anonymous said...

It's a wonderful idea, but while I would have loved to have something like this in college, those of us students in Life Sciences were expected to take notes which included diagrams drawn with -- are you ready for this? -- several different colors of pen. So, a gray scale note taker would not have worked for many of my classes.

However, now that I am in business, and the need for multicolored notes is gone, as long as I could print my notes to PDF or to an application such as OneNote so that I could highlight and annotate, I would buy one of these in a heartbeat.

Anonymous said...

I know that this post is old now, but anyone still interested should difinitely check out Ninerpad for Palm (www.ninerpad.com)

The web page does not do it justice. Try it out on an older palm. Later treos have abysmal digitisers and will create a poor experience. I tried it on a Zodiac and it is very good. If palm made a larger screen device this would be an ideal companion to the usual PIM offerings.

Michael Mace said...

Thanks for the tip.

Hmmmm, I have an old Zodiac around here somewhere, I wonder if it'll still boot up... ;-)

Anonymous said...

I am hoping the rumored "college" based Kindle is the info pad it is in my mind! I really need something to keep all of my pdfs, my own notes and is searchable.

And no the illiad is not the right device for me.

Franchise Network In Calgary said...

I must say, a digital sketching device would be so perfect.

Its genius.

Cheers,
Rose

Antonio B Duarte Jr said...

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Fred Burghardt said...

Don't know if anyone is paying attention to this thread any more but just in case and just for fun check this out (circa 1995):

http://bwrc.eecs.berkeley.edu/Research/Old/Infopad/index.html

All the links on the page are are dead now.

Fred Burghardt

Anonymous said...

Here's a link that might make you happy:
http://www.tekistore.com/pd_dna500.cfm

But the previous post was definitely a things that make you go hmmmm...

ge said...

Michael,

How compelling would a Palm webOS based tablet/slate be to you?

http://blogs.zdnet.com/perlow/?p=10139

Best regards,

Gene Evans

Michael Mace said...

Fred wrote:>>Don't know if anyone is paying attention to this thread any moreI do, and you might be surprised by how many readers it stil gets.


>>just in case and just for fun check this outYeah, I ran into that when I was first researching the info pad idea. Their concept was more restrictive than the device I'm thinking about. But it is interesting. Thanks for mentioning it.


Gene wrote:>>How compelling would a Palm webOS based tablet/slate be to you?Heck, I'd settle for one based on the old Palm OS ;-)

But seriously, I think the device could work if built with any of several mobile operating systems: Android, Symbian, WinMob, webOS, iPhone/Mac OS. iPhone is the least promising because it (currently) doesn't support use of a stylus.

But whatever the OS, the key to success is the apps built on top of it.

e said...

Eerily prescient, given the announcement this week of the Apple iPad. :)

Michael Mace said...

Thanks, e!

Uriah W. said...

The new Apple iPad comes closer, but not close enough to this concept. For one, it's more oriented around art and media even though iBooks is a large selling point of the device.

The Info Pad would need something that is completely geared towards it's one product. The iPad, while amazing, does a lot of things and is essentially a large, albeit very cool, iPhone.

Here, for me are the lists of things that the Info Pad would need to have:

1. Integrated Student Features
If you can get the markets to bend on this (schools tend to be very slow in adopting technology) you can really make it work well, bend it towards scheduling and homework, and tests...here is what I envision. In Middle School I had to carry an agenda with me all of the time...it was my passbook to do things, my tests were signed in it (by my parents...which meant the test was then stapled to the agenda) I was required to write down all of my homework and stuff in it...all useful stuff but I'm stuck with this book in addition to all of my textbooks.

Strike a licensing deal with some major textbook companies: Glencoe, McGraw Hill, Prentice Hall, the like. A school would be able to register and buy in bulk the textbooks required for their curriculum for each grade. Then, hand out Info Pads to the students and it becomes their school.

Note-taking application, textbooks, and agenda. Teachers can send tests to the Info Pad through bluetooth and parents can sign digitally straight on the info pad. Of course, a tasks and calendar application would give you a lot of flexibility for homework and the like. Need a hall pass? Teacher signs on your info pad in your 'agenda' program and you can go get that stapler or whatever.

The Info Pad could thus become a school...I mean, I spent around two hundred dollars for textbooks for last year of school...I would be much more willing to buy this...it would be WAY more useful.

And lastly, on this point, since you really gave me some thought sparks about the indexing by date and contact, index all of your homework and tasks and stuff so that you can look at a specific date and see notes you took in which subjects and tests and projects that you turned in that day, with a link to the actual project if it is on the Info Pad's memory.

2. Sudoko
Gotta have sudoko...not sure why, but it'd be fun to have ONE game! :)

3. eBooks
A previous comment got it exactly right...eBooks are hard to manage. You don't have that bookshelf metaphor that is so good in real life. So here's my idea...have a database of all books sold on the Info Pad. Make certain tags required. (Like Genre, Author, Subject, Title, etc.) Then, make an app that has 'bookshelves', similar to Apples new iBooks app, which you can sort bookshelves by title, genre, whatever.

And I agree with you about doing third party apps for most things, but I think the ebook reader and marketplace should be developed by whoever makes the pad...just since that's the core of the idea and it needs to be done 'right'.

4. Note Taking, etc.
I agree with you on most of this stuff, but I do think that handwriting recognition should be an optional thing to turn on? Since, admittedly, storing notes as .bmps isn't exactly lightning fast...even if you find something indexed it would still take a while to open, especially if its a long note.

More Comments in next comment...blogger comment limit is 4096 characters?

successful entrepreneur said...

The iPad is going to make this so much easier.

ReformedCE said...

This post is amazing. Consider that Amazon has done the ebook thing with the Kindle almost exactly as you outlined. With the Kindle Touch just announced, the hardware is largely built for a true paper replacement. The contextual cross-referencing is in place via X-ray. Just let us use that IR touch screen with a passive stylus!!!

Michael Mace said...

Thanks for the comment, ReformedCE. When you talk about X-ray are you referring to using search modifiers in a search engine, or some app I haven't heard of?

If you mean search modifiers, no that's not what I'm picturing.

Michael said...

So after 6 years nobody has actually made one yet. It seems like it might be getting closer. I look at the hardware for Google's Nexus 7 see that it could almost be there.

My ideal would be for Microsoft to take Windows RT and put it on the Nexus 7 hardware with the addition of Wacom active digitizer. I can't imagine that a digitizer could add that much to the BOM. If Google can sell the Nexus 7 for $200, it may be possible for Microsoft to hit something less than $300. If they release it themselves as a Surface tablet (with the nice kickstand and a magnetically attached pen) I'll be standing in line to hand them my money.

-Michael O. Schoneman