Apple: Will the stylus make a comeback?

Steve Jobs famously proclaimed that the stylus was too cumbersome to use and would not in fact improve workflow and input method. He proofed us right with the iPhone and the iPad – in contrast, Microsoft was all wrong – not just with Microsoft tablet PC that started in 2001, they were wrong even in the early 90’s with Windows for Pen Computer. Bill Gates is a true believer in tablets with stylus but in the last 20 years, he could never muster the innovative minds in his own company to make it work. Likewise, Apple spent a lot of time and money in the 90’s to perfect what was called the Apple Newton. The Newton could decipher handwriting and convert the result into Ascii text.
Both companies had brilliant product-concepts but neither company managed to make it work for consumers – the Newton had a hit or miss rate when deciphering handwriting. It was also slow and a brick. On the other side of the spectrum: the tablet PC concept was really just a layer on top of Windows – it was never integrated and the tablets typically suffered from short battery life which made them useless in the field. The only success came from PDA’s: Palm and the many imitators (including Microsoft) – but these would never reach beyond simple scheduling functions and todo’s and later email.
Back in ’97, Jobs made a conscious decision to abandon Newton – probably more for practical concerns given the cash crunch Apple faced (completely different engineering group outside of the Macintosh) but some of the technology made it into OS X – most prominent: OS X’s ability to use Wacom tablets ‘natively’ and to convert the input into Ascii, just like Newton – so the code for a stylus based approach is in every OS X today and with that it’s also in every iOS device (if Apple wants that).
Microsoft moved all the tablet stuff into XP and later Windows 7 – most will be preserved in Windows 8 but Microsoft has now shifted its attention towards touch based interfaces – thanks to Apple’s push into that direction and the re-education of consumers.
But given all the success of the touch interfaces: why are we still clamoring for a stylus? We clearly are otherwise, I wouldn’t think of it and neither would Samsung and Watcom.
In my mind, there are different reasons for this:

  • Mechanics – it’s natural for us to be holding a pen or a tool. This can be observed as far back as the early stone carvers. To this day, I still prefer to bring a notepad and a pen to a meeting instead of dragging a laptop or a tablet with me.
  • Precision – The pinky finger is not very accurate. It’s fine for touching buttons but try to draw or outline something and you feel utterly inadequate.

A little anecdote from times past: Steve Jobs was able to get his people concentrated on his vision – for many years, that vision included only a single-button mouse. Interestingly, OS X had native 2-button support because of its heritage – but in Apple’s world that translated into ctrl-button clicks to bring up the context-menu (or the right button menu). Apple held out for most of the previous decade until it finally introduced a two button mouse (actually four buttons) and a little trackball as scroll wheel. In reality, most people probably never used the single-button mouse that Apple provided with every Mac (I certainly never did) and Apple finally realized that the world had moved on beyond single button mice. This little anecdote illustrates an important point in Apple’s future:
If Steve Jobs was still around, he would never allow a stylus to touch his beloved iPad – but just as with n-button mice, the world moves on, sadly without Jobs.
But there are other things to consider that make the stylus more practical now than at any time in the past:

  • Screen resolution – the iPad 3 will have a retina display, or let’s say something that very closely resembles a sheet of paper. If the touch input is as precise as the pixel count, this could be a great tool for everyone who is trying to get rid of pen and paper
  • Moore’s law – Handwriting recognition was really hard with the limited resources available in the Newton and the PC’s of the past. In today’s world, there are quad core arm chips a, gigabytes of memory on tiny cards and even improved battery technology. We even have Siri.

Will we see a stylus appear in the iPad 3? Unlikely, but given that the competition is starting to roll out stylus’ in their tablets, we might see it in the iPad 4 or whatever lies ahead on Apple’s roadmap.