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

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Traditional handwriting recognition for text input is harder. The tactile feedback of plastic pen on glass is fine for limited text input, but too awkward to do on a frequent basis. It's amazing how much your handwriting -- even block printing -- degrades on a screen with a stylus. Not only is the tactile feedback wrong, but on a glass surface, there's the depth-perception problem, where the eye focuses on the liquid crystals behind the glass but the hand and pen touch the surface, creating maybe a millimeter of disconnect between what you see and what you feel. That really confuses your brain, and it shows in the results.

Then there's drawing, from simple annotations on a slide to actual painting on a digital canvas. You can't do that with a keyboard or a microphone -- but you can do it with your fingers. On an iPad, there are apps that let you annotate PDFs for onscreen presentation, such as Whiteboard Plus. Also, PDF markup tools such as PDF Expert and GoodReader let you carry out the full complement of lines, shapes, and highlighting with your fingers that typically require a mouse on a computer. Additionally, you can take advantage of drawing programs that appear to react to your finger pressure to enhance photos, such as Adobe's Photoshop Touch and Apple's iPhoto, as well as apps that let you create digital artwork through finger motions, such as Paper and Drawing Pad (whose Android version is nowhere near as good).

So who needs a pen? Smartphone users, for sure -- phablets and mini-tablets, too. Their smaller screens show the limits of how finely you can control finger movements. Those activities you can do on an iPad fairly well get a lot harder on a 3.5-, 4-, 5-, or even 7-inch screen.

The larger, 10-inch screen of an iPad or Android tablet give you more precision simply because your finger's size relative to the screen is smaller, making your fingertip more like a pencil than a crayon. But it's still not as precise as a pen. Nor is the pressure sensitivity there; iPad apps that seem to respond to finger pressure simulate that pressure by tracking finger speed, assuming a slower speed means you want a thicker line, as in a fountain pen or paintbrush.

Also missing from your finger and the simple styli available for the iPad is context. A real pen, such as the one that comes with the Galaxy Note, has a button or two to let you indicate context, much as a modifier key like Ctrl or Alt on a PC does with a mouse. Combining its pressure sensors, its contextual buttons, and its fine tip, a real pen does for onscreen drawing what Apple's Retina display technology does for onscreen viewing: takes it to a new level of realism.

Unfortuately, in my experimentation with a half-dozen pen-savvy apps for the Galaxy Note, I didn't get these kinds of benefits. Most of the apps didn't use pressure information or take advantage of the buttons beyond the basic UI capabilities native to the Galaxy Note (such as to switch from drawing mode to gesture mode). Ironically, the iPad apps I mentioned did more with fingers than most of the Note apps did with a pen.

Developers are in a Catch-22: Only the Galaxy Note supports the S Pen, so the market is small and there's little economic incentive to deliver pen-savvy apps, especially sophisticated ones. Without such apps, the market stays small, keeping developers without attractive profits.

Pens should join the user input parade
If the pen capabilities were part of the Android OS or of iOS, it'd be a different story: The sophisticated annotation and drawing apps on the iPad mentioned here would be even more capable if they were pen-savvy. Windows 8 will support pen input, but it's unclear if it will be sophisticated enough; the pen support in Windows XP, Vsta, and 7 was elemental, used mainly for handwriting recognition and checking off boxes in list apps.

I believe Google, Apple, and/or Microsoft should make their OSes and SDKs as pen-savvy as they are gesture-, keyboard-, and voice-savvy. The pen deserves to be one of the standard input methods, not in place of the others but alongside them. For certain activities, nothing beats a pen. It would make sense for a pen to be standard issue in phablets and tablets, à la the Galaxy Note. I hope it happens.

This article, "Sorry, Apple: Why the stylus needs to be in the mobile mix," was originally published at Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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