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Apple, don't cripple the Pencil's navigation in iOS 9.3

When the Apple Pencil launched alongside the iPad Pro, I was primarily excited to test it as a drawing and writing tool. I'd hoped that it would, at last, satisfy my yearning for a perfect iPad stylus, and it did: The Pencil is an incredible tool for artists, drafters, and calligraphers alike.

But unlike a real-world pencil or pen, the Pencil is also a competent navigational tool on the iPad Pro's screen. You can tap on brushes or buttons with it, of course, but also perform any of iOS's other finger-based gestures: swiping menus in or out, selecting text, and scrolling lists.

I've never been much of a navigational-stylus-on-the-iPad person, so it initially surprised me when I began using my Pencil outside of traditional drawing and sketching apps. But on the iPad Pro, it feels right — especially if you're switching between sketching a drawing or altering a photo with the Pencil to another app. If I'm looking at Google Images in one Split View pane while drawing in the other, it's easy to move the Pencil from side to side.

I also found it hugely useful at times when I couldn't sit or stand at a desk: When I first got the iPad Pro, I was recovering from an illness, and spent about a week working on the couch. When reading, the Pro's screen was often just a hair too far away or awkwardly angled for me to scroll or tap with my fingers alone, but the angle and length of the Pencil made it the perfect tool to use on the screen while I rested.

The iOS 9.3 problem

Unfortunately, whether by bug or intentional design, the Pencil's navigational prowess appears to have vanished in the iOS 9.3 public betas. With 9.3, you can no longer scroll or manipulate text; the only places the Pencil works are on canvas or when pressing digital buttons.

Whether by bug or intentional design, the Pencil's navigational prowess appears to have vanished in iOS 9.3

Normally, I don't write about beta bugs and features, because it's a beta: There are always bugs, and features change. But this functionality is important enough that I wanted to talk about it before Apple submits its final 9.3 release. It could be a bug, yes: But several betas in, we've seen fixes for Smart Connector keyboards and new features, and the Pencil remains crippled. Which makes me think, more and more, that this is a conscious decision on the part of Apple's engineering team. (I did reach out to the company about the issue, and will update if and when I receive a response.)

I can partially understand the reasoning behind the change: Navigation isn't one of the Pencil's primary uses, and you've never needed a stylus to use an iOS device, after all.

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A photo posted by on

But the fact remains that the Pencil's owners use those navigation options, and frankly, the idea that Apple would take away functionality that people have come to expect and depend on is a significant hit to usability and overall experience.

There's no reason to limit functionality on the Pencil.

Worse, it makes the Pencil useless for video and audio editing, creative pursuits that I'd hoped to explore further on the iPad Pro. I'd initially enjoyed editing and cutting several videos in iMovie for iOS with the help of the Pencil; now, you can only select and drag clips. You can't cut a clip with the downward swipe gesture, nor can you scroll the timeline.

If it's not interfering with the iOS touch architecture — and according to third-party developers I've talked with, it shouldn't be — there's no reason to limit functionality on the Pencil.

Expected results

I'm not the only one upset about this issue. Earlier this month, Relay.fm founder and host Myke Hurley wrote about his concerns. Stephen Hackett, Relay co-founder (and iMore contributor), is also concerned:

Removing the functionality relegates the Pencil to just a creative tool, not a utility that can be used system-wide. While I appreicate that it is a great option for drawing, for those of us who wanted to use it outside of that box, it feels like a bad change in direction.

The Pencil has also been hugely beneficial for those with RSI (Repetitive Strain Injuries), including Hello Internet host and YouTube producer CGP Grey. He told iMore:

I've been dealing with RSI for years, and I've found that nothing works as well for managing that [on the Mac] as Wacom pen tablets. Anyone used to a pen tablet — including most professional digital artists on a Mac — would find it crazy and infuriating if Wacom didn't let them manipulate interface elements.Most of my work is on iOS now, especially after the introduction of the Pro; as such, being able to use the pen to navigate the iOS interface is a huge deal for me, because using the iPad with my hands held like I'm fingerpainting isn't good for them. It causes strain if I'm working on the tablet all day. I was on the beta, but downgraded back because not being able to use the pen for all interface elements got uncomfortable, fast. Switching back and forth between fingers and pen seemed worse than either alone.

A Pencil plea

This is a plea to the development team at Apple: There's still time to add these Pencil features back for the final iOS 9.3 release. They're not only useful for the folks that just draw or sketch with the Pencil — they also provide functionality for video and audio editing, and offer priceless accessibility for those who have trouble with their hands.

If you want to duplicate (or you're at Apple and want more information), rdar://23980150 is the root radar (courtesy Hunter) on the issue; feel free to duplicate and signal boost if you agree.

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.

30 Comments
  • I do not mind if they make this a custom setting, but short of such a setting, I strongly prefer Apple's approach. One of the main benefits of iOS on the iPad over e.g. Windows 10 is the consequent support of finger input without compromise. As a Pencil user, nothing annoys me more than the Pencil triggering stuff it should not trigger (like scrolling). It is a deeply broken metaphor (it is called Pencil and not stylus for a reason), and should never be the standard. Again, if this is an option, I do not mind.
  • I completely disagree with Serenity and completely agree with dreyfus2.
  • And you left the most useless comment here. Unless you provide your own view point, use the voting buttons.
  • Then they shouldn't have activated it in the first place. If it never had this functionality, people wouldn't be complaining about it. However, it's been out for over 3 months now with this functionality. Apple may well get a flood of customer complaints when this goes live because people will think that their iPads or Pencils are broken.
  • There are lots of reasons that Apple should not change this, not the least of which is those of us who spent $99 for an Apple Pencil and will now have the primary function we use disabled. This is a Terrible Decision, and should be reversed NOW!!!
  • That's not the primary function. The primary function is that it does what it says on the tin, it's a pencil, for drawing and writing. The secondary function is navigation
  • I'm 76 year old with arthritis, very active iPhone and iPad user.
    ALWAYS use a stylus iPad Mini and now "pencil" with iPad Pro.
    If I use the fingers, with my arthritis, other fingers usually get on the way activating functions that I don't want. Very frustrating!
    PLEASE LEAVE THE PENCIL AS IS!
    And I'm an engineer, for 60+ years I've used my pen or pencil, NOT MY FINGER!
  • Just leave the pencil is a drawer, don't buy the pencil. It's an option.
  • Great post, I agree Serenity, I find it very useful for interaction.
  • This thread is starting to look like a vote ... But, I agree. When I am drawing, I do tend continue to hold the pencil in hand ... and different things pop up ... I find the pencil useful for navigation. There are times I relax on the couch and intentionally grab the pencil specifically to use as a stylus - keep the functionality. A setting would be optimal for both sides .... but short of a setting, keep the navigational functionality. I had suspected that a possible reason that Apple may have intentionally removed this functionality - was that it might be going through battery life much faster during pencil-sessions vs non-pencil-sessions. But, the batter last long enough - even during solid pencil usage sessions - for me to be happy about the options to use it for navigation as well. Just my thoughts ... BTW, I curiate a Flipboard channel ... I suppose you know that I am restricted from flipping this into my channel for some reason or another ? Okay, thought you knew ... just checking. I'm sure there's a good reason for that restriction - but, fwiw, I think a lot of people would like to read the article, as well as other articles on iMore, if you could see your way to allow sharing to Flipboard ... Enjoyed the article ... very useful.
  • iOS laughed at navigating touch screen with stylus like in Palm or Windows Mobile. back then Maybe it's just a matter of principle. Although, in the other hand, they don't have problem accepting the idea of sticking a keyboard to the iPad Pro.
  • For users with arthritic fingers, missing fingers, greasy fingers, or just plain old tired fingers, the navigation abilities of the Apple Pencil were a magnificent gift, and the missing features should be restored by Apple if for no other reason than the enhanced accessibility. Allowing an abstract idea to trump real world experience is the heart of all ideology, and hobbling the Apple Pencil because of a commitment to finger navigation alone in iOS would constitute a surrender to ideology on Apple's part. The Pencil is an extension of the finger, and Apple got it right the first time. Give us back navigation by Apple Pencil.
  • Absolutly Agree!!! Apple is known for allowing enhanced accessabilty, and removing this would be an awful decision.
  • Congrats for having the only original and convincing argument for keeping the navigation! Even the author didn't give us that. Based on this, I'm changing my opinion to agree that it should be kept, but only as an option in the same way as the other accessibility options. I still think the default of not using it for navigation makes more sense, but certainly it could be included as an optional setting.
  • I completely agree with you, Serenity. It would be one thing if Apple had never enabled full stylus-like support with its launch in iOS 9.2, but I've become very accustomed to using the Pencil for interacting with interface elements. Now in 9.3, it's Pencil-switch grip-finger tap-switch grip-Pencil-switch grip-finger-tap...etc. It's dramatically decreased my "customer sat" with the device to the point that I now use another stylus because I prefer to interact with the screen that way. (I hate fingerprints on glass, and the Pencil was ideal for that case.) Removing existing functionality without an option to restore is is bad juju Apple, particularly when the device is so new and not being dropped for moving forward with a new technology paradigm.
  • Agree ... "bad juju" is an understatement.
  • Apple, please don't cripple the stylus. When I am annotating a PDF I am writing on the document, highlighting, and scrolling all using the Pencil. Once it is in your hand, it is so awkward to change the grip to scroll then change it back again to write. I think the accessibility aspect Serinity brought up is also important. The iPad pro is such a big device and the pencil allows reaching the whole screen with minimal movement. It would certainly make the device less accessible which is unacceptable.
  • I would not have purchased the iPP nor the Pencil if the Pencil did not perform all navigational tasks. Furthermore, Apple demonstrated full navigational functions with their product release and it would be considered a 'bait and switch' tactic if they disable Pencil functions only a few months later.
  • This is incorrect. Neither the video demonstrating the pencil at the introduction event, nor any of the associated materials, pictures and explanations on Apple's website say or show anything about using it for navigation. It's strictly used as a drawing tool. 100% of the time.
  • #StandWithApple But not in this case..lol Guess I need to buy a different tshirt now. I'll just alternate.
  • I'm an artist and I've been waiting for Apple to add stylus support since 2007, but I disagree about using it for navigation. That's not really important as I'm sure there are opinions on both sides of this but ... I would like to point out the obvious, which is that you haven't actually made an argument here. If you want to convince someone to your side, you have to argue the case. Sorry, but this entire article just adds up to "I like/use it, so it should stay." "I want it," is just not a good reason. Especially if the other side of the argument has even one, single, good reason for removing the support (and they kinda do). Whether they ultimately end up removing the support or not, there are good reasons to do so.
  • More down votes for me for simply for expressing an opposing view while the majority of the other posts are just some variation of "yes!" or "Go Serenity!" How democratic! (not) The most "popular" comments are not necessarily right and "voting" for comments is stupid and wrong. To all the haters out there ... how about trying to engage me, or trying to construct an actual argument against something I say, instead of just down-voting me by rote, like a lot of little babies?
  • Not sure what pencil youve been using, mine, while great for drawing, has always been horrible for nav. After trying to tap a button 5 times, i give up and use my finger Sent from the iMore App
  • Totally agree. There is no reason to remove this ability to use the pencil to navigate. First of it it's $100 bucks and only work on iPad. Secondly, say you are holding the big iPad pro with ur left hand and drawing with the right. You wanna check safari or photos for inspirations and don't want split screen to occupy your canvas. Would u want to put down your pen and swipe around with your fingers? *while the slippery pen rolls off your lap as it is not magnetic and there's not a place to stash it. It's all against the workflow. Sent from the iMore App
  • Well, I will not be updating to 9.3 PERIOD. I use the pencil, -and a stylus on my iPad Mini- all the time and for everything. Have been using a Wacom stylus on a Toshiba M205 tablet since 2004. Fortunately I can't use the finger there. I'm used to the stylus. If you are used to your finger, that's fine! I'm used to the stylus! Leave the functionality of the Pencil alone! Thank you.
  • Just give us a button. Options are more useful then removing features people have added to their workflow. The ability to manipulate and scroll with the pencil is a nessesity for many. Picture how those with disabilities might use the pencil. Give an option!
  • Navigational ability was such a nice surprise, and l hope this isn't Jony Ive, being Jony Ive. He has a tendency to overdo things in some respects, and it would be the type of change he'd think of making, because it irritates him. LEAVE IT ALONE JONY, WE LIKE WHIMSICAL!!! Sent from the iMore App
  • If you agree with this article and want to leave feedback to Apple, here is the feedback form for the iPad: https://www.apple.com/feedback/ipad.html#mn_p
  • I have a Apple Pencil and really like it. I disliked how I had no place to safety store the pencil, lighting adapter, and the cap luckily I found this great case that holds the cap, the pencil, and the lighting adapter.
    https://www.antiquecharacter.biz
  • This article ranks pretty high for a number of searches so it might be worth adding an update that in iOS 10 you can use the Apple Pencil throughout the whole OS as if it were your finger. Some people seemingly refused to upgrade because of this so I think they deserve to be notified! No idea why anyone would want OS navigation to not be available. It doesn't get in the way. If somehow the pencil were interfering with your normal iOS use (seriously can't envision how it would) then at most it could be an option.