Sorry, Apple: Why the stylus needs to be in the mobile mix

As the world focuses on curved touchscreens and voice controls, we may be neglecting a key user experience mechanism

The vanguards of the first mobile revolution, the Palm Pilot and the Apple Newton MessagePad, both used a pen -- aka a stylus -- as an input device. The Newton, despite its leading-edge (for that era) handwriting recognition, was a flop, but the Pilot was a moderate hit for several years until the BlackBerry came out with its miniature keyboard; from there, the action moved away from electronic organizers to messaging devices. Windows tablets used pens, but almost no one used a Windows tablet.

More than a decade later, Samsung has reintroduced the pen in the Galaxy Note "phablet," a 5-inch, tablet-like smartphone. It will also put a pen in a full-size (10-inch) Note tablet later this year, at least in parts of Europe. Is it time for the pen to be standard equipment or at least a standard option on tablets today?

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The answer is a definite maybe.

A sea of glass and sensor technology
Last week, I attended the Society for Information Display's annual conference in Boston -- these are the vendors and researchers who create monitors, touchscreens, and other sensor-laden surfaces you interact with. (Scientists and marketers make for an interesting combination!) There wasn't that much innovation, beyond the usual refinements in the basic display and touch technologies you expect from the tech industry. One exception: Corning's Willow Glass, a bendable, very thin glass sheet that could bring curved surfaces to displays and bezels, though the challenges of handling LCDs and touchscreen sensors into the curved glass is clearly a manufacturing and engineering challenge that may take a couple years to sort out.

Even the visionary future was the same old future: Microsoft was showing its moldy videos of Microsoft Surface, its tabletop touchscreen interface it's been hawking for years, for example. There were also cool demos of multiuser interactive displays -- another perpetual promise -- from both academics and vendors, though the ones actually available to buy were created for very specialized applications. The "Minority Report" and "Iron Man" technologies are not here. We forget how tough the materials, electronics, and software engineering is to create real revolutions, even in high tech.

At the conference were Ntrig pushing pens, a lonely standout from the glass and touch-sensor options that filled the rooms. You likely don't know Ntrig, but you've seen its handiwork in many pen computing devices. (You probably do know its main competitor, Wacom, whose circuitry powers the Galaxy Note's S Pen and whose Wacom tablets have a 25-year history with Mac-based designers.) Ntrig's presentation focused on the less plausible pen future, the one where we're all writing on screens as the basic, "natural" input method. Sorry, but typing is faster, even on an onscreen keyboard. Writing may be ancient, but it's hardly natural -- it's very a much a trained behavior. And voice dictation is getting much better -- just ask Apple and Google. By contrast, a pen is a slow, messy way to enter lots of text.

Revisiting the "failed" pen
I decided to give the pen renewed attention on the Galaxy Note, after seeing the Ntrig pitch, though it may qualify as "ancient history" ever since the Palm Pilot faded from the market a decade ago. After all, people said that iPhones would never be accepted because onscreen keyboards were too awkward to use, compared to the BlackBerry's physical keyboard. Today, the BlackBerry is on a death spiral, and the Android devices such as the Motorola Droid 4 with a physical keyboard are in the minority. Touchscreens won, despite widespread initial rejection. Could the same be true for pens?

A pen is a great way to draw and to annotate, which is how it's used on the Galaxy Note and on the Windows tablets hardly anyone bought. In fact, although I considered the Galaxy Note an awkward device due to its size and the ill fit of its smartphone OS to its tablet scale, the one thing I liked about it is its pen, which works well with the touchscreen. And its built-in holder gets rid of the question of where to keep the pen when you aren't using it. You can add annotations easily to the contents of many apps. PDF markup, presentation markup, doodles and diagrams in meeting notes -- these are useful and quite doable in apps designed for the Galaxy Note's S Pen technology.

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