With a single dismissive utterance, Steve Jobs buried the stylus. During the iPhone’s introductory keynote, he briefly explained why a pen was the absolute wrong input device for the iPhone–too easy to lose, too clumsy to use–but it was a solitary “yech” that changed everyone’s mind about the stylus. Until that offhand exclamation, people actually liked using styluses, and the idea of an Apple phone shipping with one wasn’t an outlandish notion. But to hear Steve’s expression of disgust made it seem like a stylus was about as useful as a zip drive.
Years later he would extrapolate on his interjection, explaining that when it comes to touchscreen devices, “If you see a stylus, they blew it.” But by then the digital writing utensil was already filling out papers in the unemployment line. The stylus had become anathema to Apple fans, an otherwise useless pointing device that pales in comparison to the 10 we’re born with.
But as our mobile devices have grown and Multi-Touch has matured, so has the stylus. It’s not just about comfort anymore—the dumb stick that was dismissed by Jobs has evolved to the point where it’s a smart device in its own right. Apple may have designed iOS targets so they would be big enough to tap with a finger, but the precision of a stylus is no longer about the ability to hit fine points. Things like force, pressure, and button control have greatly expanded the abilities of our phones and tablets, while bridging the growing gap between the size and usability of our screens.
And as a longtime hater of using a stylus, I’m ready to accept that Apple’s tablets might be better off with one.
To the point
Every new Apple technology starts with its input device. The Mac introduced the mouse. The iPod wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without the clickwheel. Multi-Touch revolutionized the iPhone and iPad. Apple Watch transformed the traditional crown.
But people tend to forget the Newton. The Newton may have been ahead of its time, but its core input device was extraordinarily simple. The MessagePad had a touchscreen, but you were discouraged from using your fingers. Tucked into the right side of the enclosure was a tiny plastic stick that let you write in your natural handwriting. It was a revolutionary reimagining of a timeless device, and while the Newton never quite took off, its input method most certainly did. The stylus became the de facto standard for PDAs, and it pretty much stayed that way until the iPhone came along.
If Apple were to release a stylus today, it has the potential to change the landscape just as much as the Newton’s did. Where Apple’s input devices are generally born out of necessity–trying to solve a problem created by the very device it’s designed to control–a post-PC Apple stylus would be built to complement and enhance an existing interface. A stylus created for Multi-Touch devices would be somewhat analogous to the PowerBook 500’s trackpad: an input device that not only improves on the method it replaces, but also raises the ceiling of its capabilities.
The write move
When FiftyThree released Pencil for its sublime Paper app, it was more than the usual digital writing instrument. Since the app was created first, the engineers were able to design the input device around the interface, resulting in a tool that was as much about adding value than increasing usability. Pencil provided artists with an input device that allowed them to create richer, more layered works easier and more efficiently, but it also let them do things they couldn’t do as well with with their fingers.
That’s the intriguing thing about an Apple pen. There’s only so much we can do with our hands, and assuming the 12-inch iPad Pro indeed becomes reality, Multi-Touch is poised for a major evolution. Just like Apple Watch reimagined iOS for a tiny screen, I can’t imagine the iPad Pro would merely embiggen things to fill the extra inches. Rather, the iPad Pro would likely introduce new ways to navigate and work without reinventing the basic ways we use iOS, and that’s where a Bluetooth stylus could help.
Apple’s input devices have always sought to extract speed and efficiency from the devices they’re designed to control, but an Apple pen would be a new kind of territory. As a secondary control device it wouldn’t be necessary to use and enjoy the device, but it would add an additional level of performance for those who wanted it.
An Apple stylus would surely cut down on the thumb gymnastics we need to do to comfortably use our increasingly larger screens, but I don’t see Apple building one into the hardware of its device like Samsung does with its S Pen. Insertion issues aside, bundling a stylus with a device implies that it’s the preferred input method, and I don’t imagine a system where an Apple pen supplants Multi-Touch.
However, the iPad Pro represents a different sort of challenge than even the iPad Air. A 13-inch tablet is something you’re far more likely to use on a table than in your hand, and iOS 9’s multitasking offers a peek at how things could be tailored for such a screen, allowing multiple apps to be displayed at the same time. A stylus built specifically to take advantage of the iPad Pro’s specific strengths opens up this new system even further, letting us switch and share with ease, and blurring the lines between our tablets and Macs just a little more. For the iPad Pro to be successful, Apple needs to create a distinction between it and the rest of the lineup, and an expansion of multitasking would be a nice start, starting with Force Touch.
Apple has only scratched the surface with Force Touch can do. One of the most exciting technologies since Multi-Touch itself, it’s yet to make its way to the devices that can utilize it most, but all indications are that it will be a major part of both the iPhone 6s and the iPad Pro. But a stylus could be the device that truly unlocks Force Touch’s full potential.
Use the Force
While pressure sensitivity and palm rejection are a given, a Bluetooth pen from Apple could offer an even better iOS user experience, using the unique form factor to augment navigation and workflow with smart shortcuts, gestures, and an overall customization that isn’t possible with Multi-Touch. Much like the trackpad allowed for more precise and efficient movements, an Apple stylus coupled with Force Touch could turn iOS into a more fluid and intuitive system, giving icons the ability to display things like temperature and message previews, or calling up widgets without needing to pull down the Notification Center. Or it could finally eliminate the need for the icon grid altogether, expanding the limits of the dock and creating an app drawer accessible from anywhere.
Steve Jobs wasn’t wrong about the stylus. Back when he was utterly disgusted by the idea of one for the iPhone, there wasn’t much it could do that our fingers couldn’t, but with bigger screens, Bluetooth, and Force Touch, a stylus could be just the thing Apple needs to boost flagging iPad sales—and put Steve’s “yech” behind us once and for all.
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Michael Simon has been covering Apple since the iPod was the iWalk. His obsession with technology goes back to his first PC—the IBM Thinkpad with the lift-up keyboard for swapping out the drive. He's still waiting for that to come back in style tbh.