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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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, 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 Caldwell

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.