Blog Post

Time to bet on the stylus, again

Ever since I started in the design game more than 15 years ago, the stylus has been on the verge of death, or on the verge of a comeback depending on who you talk to. Thanks to the tablet, it seems the stylus is having a renaissance. If you do a search on Kickstarter for “stylus” you will find about 31 projects. I personally have backed three of these projects and have purchased a total of 7 different styli in my quest for the perfect iPad companion (my current favorite is the Lunatik Touch Pen). Why do I want a stylus? While I love my iPad for email, Web browsing and media consumption, I know it could reduce my need for pen and paper if only I had an accessory that afforded me more precision than my chunky index finger.

The iPad’s success is a sign that we are comfortable with tablets and eventually will want more from them. I want to take handwritten notes, mark up documents, and sketch. This is not a new idea, and styli dependent devices have a checkered past. The time seems right to forgive the styli sins of the past and reconsider how a stylus could complement our tablet experience. As the tablet markets grows, this is an opportunity for tablet makers to differentiate their products from the iPad and extend the value of touch devices.

Companies have been working on a digital pen and paper replacement since at least the early ’90s. The history of these attempts is not particularly inspiring for the simple reason that it was too focused on handwriting recognition as the primary input form. Apple introduced the Newton in 1993 with the promise of an intelligent assistant that could convert handwriting to text for easy data entry and manipulation.

Microsoft and Palm entered the market in 1996 and 1997 respectively. They stayed with the assistant idea, but didn’t make it dependent on natural handwriting recognition. Yet both included a stylus with their platforms as they agreed with Apple that the stylus was a natural input method.

This idea essentially died in 2007 when Apple introduced the iPhone and made touch the new navigation and input standard. Their argument was simple: you don’t need a stylus or physical keyboard with modern touchscreens and predictive text software. You can do everything you need to do with your index finger and thumbs.

Touch works great to a point, and tablets are showing the limits. I want to do more with my tablet. A quality digital ink experience could potentially replace pen and paper for common tasks. There are times when only the precision of a pen will do. Almost since the iPad launched, apps have tried to address this need such as Notability (the third most popular paid iPad app as of the end of last month), Adobe Ideas, Upad and Note Taker HD.

I prefer to use a stylus to take notes with apps such as Penultimate. I can use my index finger, but it’s not very natural, and as my writing tends to be on the larger side, this means I can only take a few large text notes per page. The stylus lets me take neater, more useful notes and more notes per page, turning my iPad into a virtual notebook. The other useful scenario is marking up documents. I can open PDFs in Note Taker HD and use a stylus as my “red pen,” marking up presentations with notes. This is useful when collaborating with others or reviewing docs for project research.

Samsung seems to agree with the value of digital ink. They are having some success with their love-it-or-hate-it phablet (phone/tablet), the Galaxy Note. And they are taking this forward into their latest full-size tablet, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1. Gdgt went as far as to say the Galaxy Note 10.1 “is arguably the best tablet available for graphic artists or designers.”

I doubt that’s what Samsung set out to do, but success with this segment could be the key to taking on the iPad and staking out their own place in the tablet market. By focusing on and winning market share with these users, they could quite literally redefine people’s expectations of tablets and become a viable alternative for mainstream users.

Ironically, this is a tactic right out of Apple’s (non-patentable) playbook. After Apple launched Mac OS X, the MacBook suddenly became the defacto standard for power users that wanted the power of UNIX and the sophistication of Mac OS X. The Mac became the perfect Web development machine and that led to it becoming the machine of choice for entrepreneurs, startups and anyone who aspired to look like a technology sophisticate.

Could the next wave of tablet owners all aspire to be designers?

Prashant Agarwal is vice president of business design at the service design consultancy, Fjord. Prashant has more than 14 years of experience in helping clients create digital services that people love. Fjord has provided strategic direction and design for such brands as Citibank, Foursquare, Nokia and Qualcomm. You can follow them on Twitter at @fjord.

Image courtesy of Flickr user

Fjord’s Christian Lindholm will be talking about mobile devices and user-interface technologies at GigaOM’s Mobilize conference in San Francisco (Sept. 20-21).

19 Responses to “Time to bet on the stylus, again”

  1. Vivek Kinhekar

    Also, think about examinations… Online examinations are mostly objective types that tests very little of examinee’s expressive power, way of thinking, etc. With stylus as pen on touchscreen tablets, will truely digitize the examination system and the examination process, with getting the answersheets written in the examinee’s own handwriting, without any forgery! Think about these…. :-)

  2. Vivek Kinhekar

    Has anybody thought about the enormous potential of using stylus as a pen and touchscreen as a paper from student’s point of view??? Education and student phase will never go out of human life. Just imagine, the shear size of this community who will immensely benefit from such perspective towards stylus. As class-room teaching will have no alternative during students’ study phase, taking notes, especially mathematical, imagery, engg. drawings, etc. will have no alternatives. Also, think about examinations…

  3. Reblogged this on nateandtheworld and commented:
    I’m in class at this very moment (I know, supremely rebellious of me), and we’re talking about good design. One of the points was about how the stylus has really been put out by most companies because of the success of the “stylus-less” iPads. Steve Jobs once said that there’s no point in having a stylus when we have 10 styluses of our own to already work with (you could make that number 20 if you have the unusual tendency of using tablets with your toes). Any ways, this article is a note to the contrary, saying that we shouldn’t be hating on the stylus for much longer. I don’t particularly agree, that is unless the stylus reaches the point where it reaches the full precision of a pen to paper. However, those days could be coming soon! On another note, this is my 3 hour class and it’s merely half over. Hopefully I’ll be able to survive the rest of it!

  4. I really like what I see from Samsung lineup phones and tablets that use stylus. I believe there is a huge opportunity for devices that support content creation and not just consumption. Not having a good content creation tablet device using a stylus would be like carrying a combined video viewer and book reader in one device and that is a passive mode being. If your work or way of being includes creating then a stylus will open up new creation opportunities.

  5. My personal take is that just like the saying goes “better have a gun and not need it than need a gun and not have it” – the stylus is great when you want detailed precise work but it not necessary at all as you can still use finger-touch to do everything. Personally, I use the stylus on a Galaxy Note all the time to take notes & draw diagrams (I am not creative by any leap of imagination). What is great about the stylus is that I find that customers get more involved when you draw “together” eg. put together an org structure or draw the network etc. & its cool to make quick note like directions or coffee orders. Its also great to sign documents so you save the print/ sign/ scan process. Finally, you also cant compare today’s stylus to the 90s one (like on the iMate phones). That was purely a “tap to get around” system – it is so much more now.
    Those that actually use it for more than just the demo in the showroom will really find it useful more often than you think.

  6. brian bulkowski

    Have you used the giant Wacom systems that run photoshop? I think they show clearly the problem isn’t your desire to use a stick (real), or the stick itself, but problems in touch technology. You want better touch, but the sensitivity of the screen/tablet is the problem. I’ve done some research into capacitive and resistive, the manufacturing issues with increasing sensitivity, and those are the bottlenecks – not the stylus.

    • And interestingly, the newest Wacom Cintiq is multi-touch. Simply looking at the image on the website tells one why. Your fingers are fantastic for control. The stick is fantastic for detailed manipulation.

      When we launch our upcoming design app for iPad in the coming weeks, we’ll see about what is arguably the best design platform.

  7. While the Lunatik Touch Pen does look like a cool stylus, to me the best stylus on the market today is the Adonit Jot Flip. Its precision is unmatched… it’s the only stylus that strays away from the rubber tip standard for a new capacitive concept.

  8. Given that a stylus would be a true differentiator with the iPad, it’s amazing to me that none of the announced Windows RT tablets include a stylus. A few Atom2 Win8 tablets do have them though, and those can be as light as the iPad. We’ll have to see how good the early ‘stylus apps’ are. So far it’s not looking good: the Win8 PDF reader offers a single black pen to annotate with. Way to sell your technological advantage..

  9. Alex Moyler

    Dangerous territory, this. For 90/95% of the time a stylus is not necessary, and will typically hinder someone using a tablet like the iPad. It adds an extra input level between you and your music/browsing/work etc.
    For that extra 5/10%, fab- I own a Cosmonaut stylus that lives in my bag almost all the time whenever I want to use Paper. But focusing on the stylus once more means going back to having to incorporate somewhere to keep the thing within the hardware, it means potentially lessening the interface for fingers, and it reintroduces the ridiculous annoyance of propriatory styluses at forty quid/bucks a pop.
    Keep them highly optional, and they’ll stay nice and cheap/accessible for those who want them.

  10. The Gnome

    The stylus is for artists or serious note takers. Its a waste of time for anything else really. Nobody wants to have to use one of those things.. didn’t we learn this back in the 90s?