Lovefilm and Livescribe: Hybrid hopefuls
Go digital or die - that's been the accepted wisdom for a while for every firm hoping to keep up in a fast-changing world. But this week I've talked to two firms which seem to have found a middle way between the analogue and digital worlds.
One is still doing something as old-fashioned as putting products in the post, the other is trying to revive handwriting by reinventing it for the digital age.
A business which depends on shifting physical products in an industry which is rapidly going digital sounds doomed - and just look at what has happened to Blockbuster in the United States for an example of the threat posed to old-fashioned movie rentals.
Now it has to be said that Lovefilm is moving down the road towards digital delivery at a fair pace - subscribers can already watch some of its titles online without waiting for the postman, and it's eager to get onto new platforms such as games consoles and the Apple TV set-top box.
But when I spoke to one of the company's backers, he was certain that a rapid transfer to a purely digital approach would not work in the short term.
"The graveyard of digital-only services is pretty full," he told me, mentioning a UK video-on-demand service called Home Choice which never really caught on and a number of false starts by BT.
"What everybody has missed," he said, "is the power of a hybrid model". The core business at Lovefilm is apparently still very profitable, and the belief is that this provides a good platform to start marketing digital services, which could then deliver better margins to the business as a whole.
This seems to make sense to me - plenty of people have lost money by failing to keep up with new technology, more have wasted it by over-estimating the pace of change.
Our broadband infrastructure will be one limiting factor for any business hoping to deliver media online - as my Lovefilm friend put it, "the letter-box has unlimited bandwidth - whereas if we chose to stream all of our movie catalogue on the same day we would bring the internet down."
With talk of a stock market debut later this year, investors seem to have bought into Lovefilm's twin-track strategy. And the venture capital community is also expressing enthusiasm for another technology firm today, with Silicon Valley's Livescribe announcing that it has received new funding.
Livescribe is another kind of hybrid, with a mission to reinvent writing. Its product is a digital pen which matches the notes you write on special Livescribe paper to an audio recording of whoever is speaking. so you can tap on each word with the pen and hear back exactly what was said.
The company's founder is Jim Marggraff, an engineer who is also a brilliant presenter of his own product - quite an unusual combination in my experience. He showed me some new features Livescribe is bringing out, including a function which allows you to take the handwritten notes from your livescribe book and e-mail them to someone, along with the audio recording.
This struck me as a delightful if rather retro idea. Perhaps it could revive the art of letter-writing, even bring a new twist to the love letter? Mr Margraff agreed, and said he had been Livescribe electronic handwritten notes to his wife.
My concern is whether there is really a big enough market for this proposition. It obviously appeals to journalists with poor shorthand, or to wealthy students taking lecture notes, but surely this is one area where most of us have already gone digital, tapping notes direct into a keyboard rather than committing them to paper first.
I also think there's just a little too much friction in the process if you could wirelessly beam the notes and audio from the pen direct to the cloud, rather than having to plug it into a computer, then it might be a compelling product.
Still, just as Lovefilm is betting that consumers will stick with an old-fashioned way of getting hold of movies for quite a while, Livescribe believes the habit of writing with a pen will stay in fashion - as long as it's given a digital twist.
Jim Marggraff tells a compelling story about his product and he confirmed to me that he had given the same demo he gave me to his new investors before they signed up. It obviously did the trick.
Time will tell, though, whether his pen computer will give handwriting a new lease of life or just prove an interesting diversion on the road to a fully digital future.