Time to retire pen and paper? New Microsoft Garage app Plumbago reimagines digital notetaking

Even though we all carry high-tech digital devices, taking notes with pen or pencil and paper is still very much alive in households, businesses and schools around the world. But what if you had a tablet-based app optimized for stylus and touch that recreated that analog appeal of writing – reducing paper and organizing woes?

Plumbago, a new app for Windows 8.1 and 10 tablets released through the Microsoft Garage, is a digital notebook with technology that smooths out handwriting so your scribbles are easier to read later. It also contains realistic ink technology and other user friendly features, such as an optimized tool picker designed to reduce the number of taps to access its features, notebook covers and paper selector.

“We were thinking about how to make a great experience that really took advantage of the Surface and its pen, and could replace a physical notebook. There are tactile, perceptive and visual properties about a real notebook that are hard to displace. So our goal was to create a neat Windows app using technology that could potentially displace those physical and perceptive artifacts,” says Gavin Jancke, general manager of engineering in Microsoft Research also serving as the user interface software engineer for the app. “So here we are today with something that will hopefully resonate well with consumers,” who he encourages to help test the experience and give feedback to refine the technology.

Plumbago, which is Latin for graphite – all pencils have graphite in them – makes writing more consistent digitally, based on your previous strokes, as you write in the notebook.  While it won’t instantly transform your handwriting, it will look more consistent across a notebook. This technology is called handwriting beautification, a technology which involves efficient stroke matching across the thousands of strokes written by a user. If matching strokes can be found, the strokes can be averaged to produce more consistent and easier-to-read handwriting.


The app also employs “infinite paper,” which enables your writing or drawings to span pages. And there are several kinds of paper to choose from, such as yellow rule – with the familiar pink margin line – as well as grid, music sheets and more.

“With Plumbago, you have up to a 25-page virtual notebook that you can navigate by swiping or visually selecting a page from a grid, so user interaction plays a pivotal role,” says Jancke. “How do you naturally go from one page to another? With a notebook, you flip the page over. With Plumbago, you swipe the surface of the page as though you’re flipping the real thing to navigate throughout the notebook. It gives a sense of fluidity moving throughout a notebook eliminating the need of having to create pages manually and scrolling like a traditional word processor, also allowing you to go directly to a page as you would by flipping a bunch of pages in a spiral notebook.”

You can also choose between pen, pencil and highlighter, which are drawn on the paper using similar properties of how the respective drawing tools behave in the physical world.

“This pen optimized experience also responds to the pressure of the pen. The harder you push on the surface, the deeper the drawing tool lays onto the paper” says Jancke, who says he rediscovered the joy of notetaking on his tablet. “Despite having been in tech for more than 30 years, and at Microsoft for almost 25 of those, I still like to write down stuff on Post-its and spiral notebooks. Plumbago is my excuse to get rid of those.”

While all this sounds easy, it required a lot of work behind the scenes.

“Every aspect of this app was challenging,” Jancke says. The app took about two years to create and ship as a partnership between Jancke, Larry Zitnick (the researcher behind the beautification and ink rendering technology) and other members of the Microsoft Research Advanced Development Team, as they went about their regular day-jobs over that time period. The app and technology required the attention he likens to craftsmanship. “A lot of care went into it over a long period of time, solving nuanced problems. We had challenges in research, code engineering and user experience. There were many iterations of critique and refinement to get to where we are now, a synthesis of different software engineering disciplines tackling a problem together involving engineers, user experience and quality assurance experts.”

The Plumbago team was also able to tap into the Microsoft Garage to help give them a framework to think about user engagement and forums, marketing and how the app fits in with the rest of the company.

“We thought the Garage would give us a space for a prototypical, unique experiment. The Garage is an outlet to try something new, and show off up-and-coming technologies,” Jancke says. “User feedback will be incorporated into refining the technological and user experience aspects into potential future updates or find their way into different Microsoft products. The Garage gives us a nice sandbox and frames expectations, so users can see the future of innovation coming out of Microsoft as we experiment with different things.”

Find Plumbago in the Windows Store and at the Microsoft Garage, which recently released several apps, including Mimicker Alarm, News Pro and FindTime.

Athima Chansanchai
Microsoft News Center Staff