Features | From Pivot Magazine

Digital handwriting is the latest trend in tablets

How one company made an old idea new again    

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A hand is shown writing notes on a tabletA high-friction display surface and digital marker allow users to write notes on reMarkable tablets (Courtesy of reMarkable)

Tradition has a pesky way of clinging onto progress. Consider email, which is still structured in the manner of historic letter-writing, with greetings, sign-offs and postscripts. Or cellphone ringtones that mimic old-time telephone rings.

Often, though, the familiar endures not out of habit, but because it works better than what’s replacing it. At least that’s what Magnus Wanberg believed when he launched reMarkable, an “e-ink tablet” that converts handwritten notes into digital form. 

As a college student, Wanberg found it difficult to concentrate while working on laptops, with their constant pop-ups and notifications, so he set out to create an interruption-free device that would provide “all of the benefits of writing on paper, but with superior technology to share, search and save your work,” as reMarkable’s Henrik Faller, vice-president of communications for the Norway-based company, describes it.

“There is a lot of research that shows writing, rather than typing, positively impacts memory retention,” Faller says, citing sensorimotor parts of the brain. “Writing activates a lot of sensors, from pressing the pen to paper to seeing the letters appear to hearing the act of writing.” 

In reMarkable’s case, the “paper” is a unique, high-friction display surface and the “pen” is a next-gen digital marker. In 2020, the company released reMarkable 2, an upgraded version whose “realistic ink flow” simulates actual writing or sketching to an even greater degree, making it “as close to paper as it gets.” 

In its unambivalent embrace of the analog, reMarkable occupies a growing space of products, from the “distraction-free” Freewrite smart typewriter by Astrohaus to the Alphasmart Neo2 portable word processor, that proudly and even defiantly combines retro and high-tech. “We are not a notebook,” Faller stresses, “and we are not an Android or iOS tablet.” Instead, it’s the ability to mimic pen to paper that is vital to reMarkable’s long-term success. 

“The overall tablet market has been declining for years in Canada and is forecasted to continue to do so,” says Manish Nargas, a consumer tech researcher in the Toronto office of global market research firm IDC. The erosion of the category by challengers like multitasking, larger-screen smartphones may put a cap on the market opportunity for specific purpose-built products like reMarkable. Still, its marketplace uniqueness helped boost sales. In the run-up to its first shipment of devices in late 2017, the company registered US$13.6 million in pre-order sales. By the end of that year, “well over” 100,000 units were in the hands of those early adopters, generating revenue of US$74.3 million.

The 2020 release of reMarkable 2 followed a US$18.6-million cash infusion in the company by Boston-based Spark Capital, whose past investments have included Twitter and Slack. It also came on the heels of a reported renewed focus by Wanberg’s team on business users, although Faller told Pivot that the target market remains “paper people” generally, including creatives, professionals and students. 

“Paper is wonderful,” Faller says, “but it has some drawbacks. It is wasteful. It is hard to search, share and save your work. We wanted to create a tablet that would allow you to do your best work while giving you the feel of writing on paper.” 


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