FLY Pentop Computer: LeapFrog's Big Flop - Krazy Ken’s Tech Talk
- If you grew up in the early 2000s, you probably wanted a PDA, (crowd cheers) but you also had no money. (crowd boos) Well, instead of building the computer into a handheld device, LeapFrog spent about a $100 million to build the computer into the pen. Let's see how well that worked out. Sponsored by Linode, cloud computing from Akamai. (upbeat music) Hey everyone, how are you all doing? If you're new here, welcome. My name is Krazy Ken, and this is the FLY Pentop Computer.
It was a clever idea. I even had one as a kid, but I haven't touched one since, and I didn't even know they made a sequel product called Fusion. So today let's take a look at these futuristic tech toy products created by LeapFrog. LeapFrog Enterprises was founded by Michael Wood and Robert Lally in 1995. And as the old saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. So why did Mike invent this company? In the late '80s, Michael was working as an attorney in San Francisco and he had trouble teaching his three-year-old son Matthew how to read.
Matthew could memorize and identify each letter in the alphabet, but he struggled to learn the sounds or phonics of each letter. He tried various toys, but when Michael recalled the story, he said, Matthew didn't play with any of them. "What do I do?" said Michael to himself... probably. Maybe luck was about to strike.
One day, Michael was reviewing a product made by one of his clients, a talking greeting card which used speech chips developed by Texas Instruments. And eureka, Michael thought, why not take the physical letters and combine them with sound chips? For the next five years, Michael worked on this concept along with all the researching that came with it, while still practicing law. He was a busy dude. Man, hopefully during that time, Matthew learned how to read. In 1994, Michael had a working prototype. A child would press a plastic toy letter and the prototype would speak the letter audibly.
Okay, so we have the research, check. We have the prototype, check. What's the one thing missing? Oh yes, $800,000. Michael sought some money from his friends and family and some of his clients, and when he raised enough, he quit his job in law and founded LeapFrog Enterprises with Robert Lally in 1995.
And that same year, they launched their first product already, Phonics Desk. Phonics Desk was a huge hit. It reached $10 million in sales by 1997 and big chains like Walmart were carrying it. But LeapFrog was just getting started. On their radar, a company named Explore Technologies was popping up. This was an interactive toy company founded in 1995 by Jim Marggraff, and they owned a patented technology named NearTouch.
This tech made products like the Odyssey Atmosphere Globe possible, where users could touch objects with a special stylus like countries on a globe and the object would respond through a speaker. LeapFrog was very interested in NearTouch, so they acquired Explore Technologies in 1998. And this enabled them to launch a wildly successful product.
Even if you've never owned one, you've probably heard of it. The LeapPad. The LeapPad worked like the globe, but with a book in cartridge system. Users would insert a book in cartridge into the LeapPad and use the stylus to touch text in the book and other graphics and the book would speak back to the user. (book chimes) - [Voiceover] The Elephant Graveyard was dark and scary. - Wow, this is a good book.
They should turn it into a movie... twice. LeapFrog's growth was phenomenal. In 2002, they almost hit $600 million in sales.
And they went public on the New York Stock Exchange. They were moving fast and growing big. But in the midst of all of the success, Michael decided to leave in 2004 and start a new company in 2006, Smarty Ants.
Also in 2004, Robert Lally left the company too. And that brings us to the FLY Pentop Computer or simply FLY. According to LeapFrog's focus groups, users found the name FLY Pentop Computer to be infinitely sexier than just pen computer.
- A computer absolutely can be sexier. - FLY's development dates back to 2001 after LeapPad was taking off. Jim Marggraff was looking to make a sequel product to LeapPad while it was still hot. But then he heard about a new pen and paper computing system developed by Anoto, a Swedish startup. Marggraff worked for the next three years to persuade Anoto to license its optical scanning technology to LeapFrog so they could make what would soon be called FLY. "Please license us the tech."
"No." "Please." "No." "Please." "Okay."
So LeapFrog and Anoto joined forces to create FLY. And good timing too. LeapPad sales were starting to cool off a little bit, and LeapFrog experienced their first yearly loss in 2004. So they needed a new hit.
The two companies spent a lot of money on FLY's development. It's an undisclosed number, but sources estimate it's about $100 million. But perhaps it would pay off because on October 17th, 2005, FLY officially launched for $99, and oh my gosh, I remember these TV commercials with the sketched faces.
- Say, hi, goodbye. The world's first pentop computer. - Whoa, it's all coming back to me like a boomerang. So while we're on that note, let's talk about these commercials and the advertising some more. FLY marketed the pen towards tweens and advertised the product as the world's first pentop computer.
The ads claimed whatever you write, FLY brings to life. - Whoa! How FLY is that? - And young me was like, "Holy frick, this is cool." But older, wiser, and more tech savvy me says, "Holy frick, this is cool." Yeah, I'll admit it's still really cool technology, but you know, there's gotta be limitations, right? Not everything can just be brought to life. So we'll test it out soon.
The commercials showed off fun things you could do with FLY, like playing hand-drawn instruments, but the marketing also focused a lot on homework. For instance, helping kids with math equations. - Need a calculator? Draw one and really use it. - Look, I know we haven't tested this thing yet, but wouldn't it just be faster to, I don't know, find an actual calculator and do the math on there instead of drawing every single button? And look, they even included an interactive calculator card that you don't have to draw. How thoughtful.
Something I find amusing is the FLY commercials barely mention LeapFrog at all. I found one commercial that did so far, but it's kind of a rarity. My hypothesis is LeapFrog's image is commonly associated with younger kids and the FLY was targeting a slightly older demographic.
So that's probably why LeapFrog wanted to distance their main brand from the FLY brand. You know what I just realized? What animal likes to eat flies? Frogs. So now let's take a quick look at the FLY hardware. I think the design is quite slick and it has a futuristicy sort of look, especially for 2005.
But it is kind of, well, fat for a pen. FLY weighs 2.7 ounces, about 13 times heavier than a normal pen and it's very thick.
But I guess you have to store the computer somewhere, right? On the front is a retraction switch for the pen, a speaker and power button. On the top is the headphone jack and a port for connecting FLY ware cartridges with different software. On the bottom near the tip is the camera or optical sensor, which reads what you write using Anoto and MyScript technology which we'll dive into more in a sec. And this is the retail box for FLY. You get a lot with it. You get the pen, earbuds, a case, the launchpad, games, FLY paper, and other interactive pages and cards.
And don't forget to register your product. That's very important. So to use the software features on FLY there's two methods. There's FLY paper and FLY open paper.
FLY paper is specially printed paper with pre-populated images and graphics that you can tap on and interact with. On the other hand, FLY open paper is blank paper with several pre-drawn FLYcons at the bottom for menu navigation. On this paper, users can write and draw whatever they want and they can summon different applications like Notepad and FLY Tones. Now keep in mind you can only use the FLY Pentop Computer with FLY paper. So if you run out, you'll have to order some more from liveonthefly.com.
I mean you can't do that anymore, but back in the day, that's what you would've done. There's also various other FLY ware cartridges you could purchase and those offered new software capabilities and they came bundled with new FLY papers. I actually thought the default software for the pen was stored on this cartridge. But no, all of the software must be stored on internal memory because this is just a dummy cartridge. There's nothing in it and that's likely just there to help protect the port and complete the look.
All right, let's take it for a spin. Let's pop out the tip and boot her up. (pen dings) - [Voiceover] Hello, Krazy Ken.
- How do you know my name? After you first turn on FLY, you're guided through a simple setup process to set date, time, and country. You simply tap the pen on the card to choose your options and FLY's voice will speak to you. - [Voiceover] Canada, the country is set to Canada. (Canadian National Anthem) - Yeah, back then the only countries were the United States and Canada. Things change. But after that, you're good to go, sort of.
LeapFrog wanted to make sure FLY can read what you write, so they designed FLYtype. FLYtype is a writing system that makes it easier for the camera to read what you're writing, but it has some drawbacks, no pun intended. You could only write in capital letters, which really slows me down. I don't know about you, but that's kind of a pain. And there's certain character pairings the guide warns you about. You have to be really careful with things like E and F and four and nine 'cause those things look so similar, it might confuse the camera.
They also say you have to use the pen straight up and down. Frankly, I never paid attention to that instruction when I was a kid. I just used it like a normal pen on a slight angle like this and it worked fine, but maybe the guide is just a little overly picky. The FLY TYPE guide provided space to practice.
And once you were ready, you could start using FLY paper. But how does this special paper work with the pen? FLY paper uses a lightly printed pattern of small dots, which provides positioning information to the pen. The pen uses an optical infrared scanner to scan the dots while the pen moves on the paper. And the scanner is only triggered when pressure is applied to the tip. The particular positioning of Anoto's dots helps the pen determine its location on the paper.
The dots cannot be perfectly aligned with each other because the pattern would not look unique to the pen's scanner. It would lose its position on the paper. Instead, the dots are offset from a virtual grid so they can be identified. The pen sees the dot in one of four ways in relation to the grid's intersection, above, below, left, or right. So now the pen can remember the location of everything you draw like buttons.
To decode the scanned information, FLY uses Vision Objects MyScript technology, a proprietary handwriting recognition engine trained on thousands of handwriting samples. So now that FLY is set up and we know how the tech works, let's play with it. I'll start by using some of the FLY paper with the graphics already printed on it. I'll play this geography game because, yeah, I'm just so good at this subject. Okay, so I'm using the extra challenging side that has no labels on it.
So let's do free for all. (cheerful music) - [Voiceover] Tuxtla Gutierrez. - What? I don't even know what that country is. Florida. Again, you could get third party applications, but there were other things included with the sampler, including word searches, hidden pictures, and quizzes.
I honestly really like this FLY strip idea. To activate a game, you simply draw a line from the green dot to the red dot and bon appetit. Now let's try some FLY open paper.
You can tap on the FLYcons at the bottom to scroll through options, and then the pen would narrate future instructions. - [Voiceover] Add new note. New note. To create your review menu, write NR and draw a box around it. - Yeah, you had to draw pretty much your whole user interface, but you didn't have a screen, so what else were you gonna do? Anyway, as you can probably see, I did some mining off camera and I already drew the KrazyBoard 3000. So let's crank out some tunes.
All right, we have the synthesizer on. Let's do some theme music. (Axel F from "Beverly Hills Cop" soundtrack) (Wrong note) Oh (bleep). (Axel F from "Beverly Hills Cop" soundtrack) I nailed it.
I can't go much higher because you only have the one octave. Okay, so now I have to do the naughty words text-to-speech thing because apparently I'm 11 years old. - [Voiceover] Add new note.
Print up to three words in capitals. (pen beeps) Note 9... bleep. (Krazy Ken laughs) - It just bleeps it out. Okay, so after playing with this thing for a while, I've been testing it out for several days.
It just kind of gets a little tedious and boring, you know? And maybe that's just me talking nowadays because we're constantly surrounded by screens and other high tech products. But even back in 2005, 13 years ago, no, 18 years ago, holy. Even back in 2005, when I first got one of these things, I don't remember playing with it for more than a week or two. But LeapFrog had some other tricks up their sleeves.
Maybe their future products would be a bit more useful and entertaining than this pen. So what happened next? I'll tell you what happened next. Oh boy, I'm gonna need some more paper to write this one out. Shortly after the FLY launch, Jim left LeapFrog to work as CEO of Anoto, the company that licensed the camera and dot tech to LeapFrog in the first place. Then in 2007, Jim left Anoto to form a new company Livescribe, and they made digital pens. And guess what company acquired Livescribe in 2015.
Anoto, of course. Let me just make sure I got it down. Okay, so let me see if I got this right. So Anoto first licensed the technology to LeapFrog and that was facilitated by Jim. Good job Jim.
Okay, Jim, you're successful. You're now the CEO of Anoto. You left LeapFrog, you dirty trader. Just kidding, we love you. Then he leaves and starts a new company Livescribe, okay, and then Anoto just acquires Livescribe. And Jim's like, bye-bye, all right.
Put that up on still store. That is quite a flow chart. But let's not get too ahead of ourselves. There was still something very important that happened on July 25th, 2007. LeapFrog launched the follow-up product to the original FLY, FLY Fusion.
The FLY Fusion was sold for $79 and the marketing appeared to focus on a slightly older demographic showing photos of older students on the box and using less scribbly looking fonts and graphics. Fusion also focused more on homework applications. Even on the front of the box, they made it clear it's the ultimate high-speed homework system. Fusion featured a new design and rechargeable battery and its big feature was FLY notes and the ability to digitally convert your notes and everything you write and draw into searchable files on your computer via the FLY World app. And it plays MP3s because why not? All right, let's try it out. Okay, so I have the CD that came with the FLY Fusion and you'd think the FLY World installer would be on here, right? But no, that would be too easy.
It's a lightweight installer that needs to connect to a server to download the application, which isn't gonna work because the websites were shut down who knows how long ago? So I went to the interwebs and sought out an archived version of the installer. And I found one, but I had to avoid those lovely fake download buttons. Seriously, why are ads allowed to show fake download buttons? Like FTC, get on that. And boom, the app installation was pretty easy, but we can't log in with an account, because again, the websites were shut down.
So we'll continue as guest. And here's what the application looks like. It has a downloads tab where you can install new software onto the pen. That's right. All apps are now stored on internal memory.
No more cartridges. And you could expand the memory if you'd like. You could also purchase physical software packages for titles not available in the download store, Like these algebra and writing titles. These packages included a physical CD and notebook.
Back in the app, there's also a notebooks tab for your digitized notes and export options on the right side, print, email, et cetera. Also, part in my extremely boring Windows 7 basic theme, I can't enable Arrow because I scored a 1.0 on the Windows experience index.
Driver issue. Anyway, let's plug this baby in and open up the butter packet. I can't get it to do anything.
It just blinks red, which isn't mentioned in the manual, so I have no idea what's going on. One of my viewers, Ryan, reached out to me and said he had the same problem too. So maybe this is a widespread issue. So I frantically searched eBay for another one and boom, I found it and thankfully it had portal shipping, so it should be here pretty soon.
Hey, look at that. That was fast. All right, take two. And it still doesn't work. I let it sit overnight, I charged it from a computer, I charged it from a USB adapter for a wall outlet, nothing. Nothing would work.
Two dead pens in a row? What the (bleep)? Seriously, I felt like an idiot 'cause originally I thought, I just don't know how to turn it on. Maybe there's another switch or something somewhere. But no, I looked at the manual and it just says press the power button right there. But yeah, none of them work. But I won't let that stop me.
I might not be able to turn the pens on, but we can still take a closer look at this product. Fusion came with some significant user interface changes. Users primarily wrote in a newly designed FLY Fusion notebook, which they needed to tap to activate.
Inside the notebook cover is a brief guide and a double sided flap with a control panel, which could be used on any page. It featured global controls like volume, an apps menu, and MP3 controls. Fusion also used FLY Compass, a new way to navigate menus.
In the previous FLY system, you had to tap repeatedly on an icon to hear all of the menu options. But now you could scroll up, down, and go back to the previous menu by tapping around the main FLYcon. But there was a weird limitation. If you were listening to music with the MP3 player, you couldn't draw a FLYcon in the first place. You have to stop the MP3 player first and then draw your FLYcon.
Why? Just listen to your iPod. Anyway, Fusion also worked as a stylus, meaning you could tap on paper and interact with it without having the writing tip exposed. On the original FLY, the pen's writing tip always needed to be exposed for interacting with controls, even if you didn't need to write anything. And this often resulted in various ink dots and lines, but Fusion fixes that problem.
Something I don't like about Fusion, however, is to expose the writing tip, you have to twist this tiny little plastic cone and it's just kind of hard to grab. And sometimes I can get ink on myself by doing that, so it just doesn't feel too comfortable. It's not as nice as this easy switch they put on the first gen FLY. But oh, well, that's what you get for 80 bucks. But thankfully when you needed to write something, you could now use lowercase letters.
And again, Fusion's big feature was FLY notes and the ability to convert all the stuff you draw and write digitally onto your PC. So the internal memory, you could store about 80 to 100 pages, and then when you dumped everything to your computer with USB, the memory would automatically erase itself. It's a bit of a bummer that I can't get the pens to turn on because I wanted to show that feature in action. But hey, maybe the tutorials will show us. Oh, none of the tutorials actually show the application in action. Okay.
Even Billiam had troubles with his Fusion pens and he bought two just like me. However, he got lucky with a third unit that he wasn't even trying to buy on purpose. He turned it on and boom, it worked. But when he tested the transcription feature, it was not accurate.
That's not correct. I like how it picked up good handwriting though. - Ultimately, the FLY line only lasted four years and it was discontinued in 2009. And I can't say I'm surprised because I don't think the products were really that great. That's just my opinion.
But it wasn't just that. LeapFrog as a company was also having problems. Leapfrog's stock peaked on October 21st, 2003 at 46.54 a share adjusted for splits.
And after a steep decline the next year, it never grew near that peak again. Overall, LeapFrog sales were down, and a big reason was the company relied on the success of the LeapPad way too much, and those products were technologically past their prime according to their 2006 financial report. And I can't find any sales figures for the FLY, so I can't imagine the numbers were that great. In LeapFrog's SEC filing, sales are divided into their Leapster line and all other products, no specifics about FLY. And according to East Bay Times, FLY won some awards at the beginning of its life, and it had some strong sales in its first winter season, but it couldn't keep that momentum. But why? The pen tech was so cool.
Why did it flop in only about four years? That's even shorter than the Pebble smartwatch. Well, in my Pebble episode, I got lucky. Eric actually wrote a postmortem about why his product failed. But to the best of my knowledge, the LeapFrog guys didn't do that. So I have no direct information from them, but I do have my theory. Again, I had a FLY as a kid and I only remember playing with it for about two weeks, and I had no idea a sequel product ever came out.
So that's how fast the fun died for me. And I'm guessing that happened with a bunch of other kids too. One of my viewers, John, said he used to sell FLY at Staples, but they didn't sell many and the store never placed a second order. And ultimately, I just think the FLY wasn't really that fun or useful.
Like it looks cool in a commercial, but that fun just kind of dies out pretty quickly. And even if some parts were useful, it wasn't really that intuitive. You had to draw much of your user interface if you were using FLY open paper and you had to write a certain way and use all caps, and there were bad limits on things. Like your audible notes could only be three words long. A lot of the FLY just felt kind of half-baked. As a kid, I was more entertained and educated by computers and things with screens on them, which even LeapFrog was selling since 2003 with the Leapster line.
So I'm guessing the success of that product overshadowed FLY. But these setbacks didn't kill them. LeapFrog is still around today. LeapFrog continued to add more products to their line and they discontinued the LeapPad in favor of Tag, which looks kind of familiar, doesn't it? It used some technology and design elements from FLY, but it wasn't aimed at the same demographic. It was aimed more toward children.
Tag focused on reading skills, so it didn't have any writing functionality built into it. But that was added in 2013 when LeapFrog launched the LeapReader in place of the Tag. And that is still available for sale today as of September 2023. And in 2016, LeapFrog was acquired for $72 million by VTech.
Yeah, the same company that made the Companion email device I talked about in my CIDCO iPhone episode. But what happened to everybody? What happened to Jim Marggraff? Well, let's go back to my lovely flow chart. When Anoto acquired his Livescribe company in 2015, Jim left to focus on another company he already started in 2013, Eyefluence, which Google bought in 2016.
As for Livescribe, they still sell digital pens like the Echo. And today Jim is running Kinoo, a company that focuses on screenless smart devices to help children read. The company is now named Kibeam, but their website is very vague and it doesn't show any products.
So I'm assuming they're still in the testing stage. I found a kickstarter for the Kinoo Magic Wand, and according to Lastinger Center for Learning, the name has since been changed to Kibeam Wand, which is probably a good idea because when you Google magic wand, you get results for something else. Aside from Jim's new ventures, it's still remarkable to see modern LeapFrog products using the tech he helped build and acquire in the FLY days, which helped kids learn to read and write around the world. But what about Michael Wood, the guy who started it all? He was at Smarty Ants until 2015, but he hasn't posted anything after that on his LinkedIn, so I can't say for sure where he is now, but maybe he's just relaxing and retired and enjoying life. I hope that's the case.
He's already done so many great things for children and for education. And to think it all started because he was a father who wanted to help his son read. But instead of helping one kid read, he wound up helping millions. And yeah, it's still unfortunate that the FLY websites are down, but your website doesn't have to be. If you have a website or application that needs to be scaled or deployed, Linode has the 24/7 support and infrastructure that you need.
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Visit linode.com/computerclan and click one of the signup buttons. And when you do that, we'll give you a 60-day $100 credit just for watching this episode. And you're also supporting the Computer Clan, so thank you very much. Catch the crazy and pass it on. (upbeat music) I Wonder if FLY can recognize Sonic.
- [Voiceover] Gotta go fast. - Whoa.