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Here's why Apple might make a stylus for the iPad

There's been a lot of talk lately about styluses — specifically, an Apple-branded stylus pen that might ship alongside the rumored iPad Pro.

As an artist, frequent note-taker, and all-around scribbler, I've wanted a Wacom-esque pressure-sensitive stylus since the iPad's release. I wrote about iPad styluses time and time again as we saw creative developers try and build around the iPad's hardware limitations. I've looked longingly over at Wacom's half-baked tablet solutions. And I haven't been happy.

Could Apple make an iPad stylus that actually fulfilled my wants — and those of other artists — for a tablet next year? It could. But would it want to? This year, quite possibly.

What the stylus market is

Okay, so here's the thing about styluses: Just like their real-world counterparts — pens — styluses aren't meant to do everything. You wouldn't attempt to pick up a piece of paper with a pen, right? So you're probably not going to open an app with a stylus. (Unless it's very cold and you're wearing gloves. But c'mon, there's a liquid application for that!)

That oft-quoted Steve Jobs Q&A answer on styluses? He's referring to that concept — making styluses for typing or tapping rather than using multitouch gestures. It's all about having the right tool for the right job, and in this case, yes, a stylus for tapping or general interaction seems silly. The gesture has won out.

But there are still plenty of sane reasons to have a digital stylus: Drawing. Handwriting. Drafting. Strumming a virtual instrument. For these use cases, a stylus not only makes sense — it's nigh-essential. Yes, there are many artists who've made their name on how well they can digitally paint on iPads and other tablets, but I'd argue that it's an art style, not a solution for all artistic sketching. It's still difficult to do detailed cartooning or calculated drafting with your finger, or quickly handwrite a note or a title card.

What the stylus market lacks

There are a bunch of third-party manufacturers in the iPad stylus game trying to address these users — Ten One, Adonit, Wacom, LynkTec, FiftyThree, and Studio Neat, to name a few. In just five years, they've made great strides in taking the iPad stylus from so-so spongey finger representation to mostly-accurate fineline faux pressure sensitivity.

But even the best-made styluses are limited in how well they can serve their users, because Apple's screen is simply not designed for a stylus. It never has been. The Multi-Touch sensors look for finger-sized input; it's why early styluses had big, finger-sized rubber nibs.

The smaller nibs you see on styluses today came as a result of low-energy Bluetooth technology and battery-operated styluses; they employed tricks like simulating the electric current of your finger on a small nib to get the stylus to properly register.

It's not an elegant solution. It's why so many third-party styluses have problems with lag and accuracy, and things like palm rejection are often buggily-implemented per-app features. Developers have to build around the iPad's hardware, rather than working in concert with it.

But Apple has the potential to change this.

The case for an Apple stylus

If Apple were to build a creative stylus for the iPad, the company would need to reinvent its proprietary Multi-Touch screen to incorporate a pen-type input. It could do so in a wide variety of ways, most too technical to get into here. And doing so would not only open up potential for a stylus, but for new and different kinds of inputs on the iPad screen.

Assuming Apple let third-party developers have hooks into these sensors — InkKit, maybe? — drafters and architects could have a digital compass. Paintbrush-style styluses could individually map each bristle-point to the software it interacted with.

Adding these kinds of sensors would put incredible potential into both developers' and the user's hands. But would enough people buy such an item for it to be worth Apple's time? That's the real question. Solely targeting the creative pro industry isn't much more than a "hobby" market, by Apple's standards — millions of artists might buy a stylus, but when your potential sales pool is in the billions, that looks a lot like chump change.

So why might Apple want to build a stylus now, in 2015? I've got two thoughts: new markets and new technology.

When it comes to bigger markets, I tend to agree with folks like Neil Cybart, who believes that Apple could very successfully market styluses or other like input devices to Fortune 500 companies. Take into account signing, writing, scribbling, and and whiteboard-marking, and there's a lot many businesses currently do on paper that Apple could bring over to the iPad with the proper apps and physical tools.

But, as I lamented earlier in the week, even the most precise Apple stylus is still going to feel more foreign to write on than the ease of a yellow-pad or Post-It note.

That is, unless Apple has figured out a way to make writing with a stylus feel more like writing on paper. The company could use the work it's put into haptic technology on an iPad pen or screen to make interactions feel less sterile. Or the pen could be a double-whammy: incorporating something along the lines of Wacom's Inkling technology to let you sketch on real paper and have it instantly digitized on the iPad's screen, in addition to operating as a traditional stylus.

Heck, it could even be working on something entirely new and different.

The proposed larger screen size of the iPad Pro might be a better building ground for Apple's stylus tech, as well. Adding new sensors and options to an already-packed Multi-Touch screen — all while keeping the device thinner than a pencil — might have been too much of a challenge on the 10-inch iPad. On a 13-inch iPad, engineers might finally have the breathing room.

Wait and see time

I've heard this iPad stylus rumor bandied about for almost five years now, so even with backup from fairly reputable sources, I can't say definitively that we'll see production this year. But boy, am I crossing my fingers that it does.

And whether it happens or not, I can guarantee that 2015 will be the year I do another massive iPad stylus roundup — I have about 35 on my desk right now. I may not be able to promise an Apple stylus, but I can certainly promise an article on the best styluses third-party manufacturers have to offer. Soon. Sooooon.

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.

35 Comments
  • I'd say the main reason they want to put a stylus on an iPad is they see the success of having a stylus. Look at the Samsung Note series and even the Surface Pro 3. The stylus's (probably spelled incorrectly) on the respective devices are nice additions providing a nice experience in certain applications. Apple is missing out on the stylus market and no doubt, if they dip their heels into that specific market, they will be successful. Sony Z3, Nexus 5, or Surface Pro 3
  • err.. minor success.. They are not exactly flying off the shelf, much less because of a stylus. yes, some turn to those products because of it, but more likely their are other reasons driving someone to those products. EDIT: I have a Note 3, I've pulled the stylus out exactly 5 times that I can remember.. 6 if you count right now while I look at it.. /shrug I now own an iPhone 6 Plus and even less likely to use it.
  • Agreed. The apps that do use them on such devices are designed for a stylus or you need one for some of the side by side multitasking because the targets are too small for fingers. iPad apps are built for multitouch.
  • Also look at the Cintiq companion line. There are a lot of digital artists that would love to have the ability to draw on their iPad with better control than they have now. I'm fairly platform agnostic. I don't really care for the note phones, but love my note tablet. The stylus is great for marking up PDFs and for taking notes. I also like it for digital signatures. I have an iPad mini, but tend to use it more for games. I want an iPad Air but don't have a compelling reason to upgrade. If Apple were to make a stylus that truly interfaced well with their tablets, I would probably ditch the surface for an iPad Air. There are benefits to having all of your devices in the same ecosystem. Continuity and saving on app purchases being two of them. Sent from the iMore App
  • I been using a Stylus for my iPad for a few years now. I mainly use mine for those click and play games so my finger doesn't doesn't ache from tapping so much! I really think a Stylus should be included with any tablet!
  • Yes, I would definitely like to see your stylus shootout!
  • Samsung's s pen is awesome. They have mastered the software. Also, it fits perfectly in its silo. Microsoft's Surface Pro 3's pen is very good. If Apple really wants a stylus to be widely adopted, they need to get the software right (usually their forte) and have it so that it works with many applications. As an add-on, it could work, but it would be better to have a silo or something that attaches to the device and not stand alone. We'll see...
  • How's the tracking with the Note 4? I played with a friend's Note 3, and the "ink" was as far as a 1/4" behind the pen at normal handwriting speeds. This is a no-go for me. I need it render instantly to the pixel I'm touching & tracking speeds of my handwriting, like a real pen on real paper. Even the drawing apps on iPad with a squishy-tip stylus is not 1:1. If Apple can solve this, AND convert my handwriting to searchable text, then I'all buy it. The text conversion doesn't need to be instantaneous, but a sentence at a time, maybe wait for me to pause for 5+ seconds, then attempt to convert automatically.
    .
    I guess this is one of those things from which everyone wants something different, so it would be nearly impossible to make everyone happy. Sent from the iMore App
  • My Note 3 is instantaneous. There is no delay. In meetings, note taking is nice. If my iPhone 6 plus had a comparable stylus, I would love it. The plus's larger screen would be good for pen input.
  • It's great. I have a Note 4 and had a 3 before it. I write site reports, jot notes in meetings, lists and such on a daily basis. Never an issue with keeping up. I will point out that I use S Note and S Memo (Samsung's built in apps) for these tasks so I cannot speak as to whether third party apps like Evernote have the lag you speak of. The Note is also very good at handwriting to text conversion, not perfect though. I'll say 95 to 96 percent accurate conversion rate. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • The Note 4's tracking is excellent. I have an iPad Air and two Retina Minis and even quick sketches on the Note 4 are better -- plus some apps support pressure sensitivity -- i.e. more pressure on the S+Pen increases the line weight. Incidentally, the Note 4's S-Pen hardware is new -- the nibs are meant to wear out with use, I think; there are several replacements in the box. I have not been a fan of Samsung's software for some time -- it was the reason I moved over to the Apple ecosystem from Android -- and I was surprised at how well the S-Pen works and how far their software has come; it's no longer a clunky mess although it needs a huge visual overhaul. You should give it a try -- it's a good piece of kit. Having said that, I have EVERY confidence Apple can get it right and do better if they put the requisite effort into it.
  • Thank you for this article - we are using iPads marking up PDFs of reports and contracts with review comments - you most definitely need a stylus.
  • Oh the horrors of PDF markup! Especially when you try to zoom in on architectural drawings, and it thinks I'm drawing a line or whatever. I have yet to find a usable solution. The render times are slow even on my iPad Air(1). Sent from the iMore App
  • Architectural drawings are probably lot more difficult than contracts or sets of accounts that I tend to review .... My favourite app is Noteshelf and I went through all sorts if styli only to come back to the simple batteryless JotPro from Adonit (the one with see through plastic disc) - what are you using?
  • I've been using a stylus on my iPad for work for the last 2 years - marking up PDFs for note-taking in Notability is quite convenient, however the inaccuracy of it all ends up making my writing look like a 10-year-old's. I would love for Apple to perfect this input method and include it with an "iPad Pro." I'd probably not give it a second thought in buying one for my business (though I do like the "smaller" size of the 9.7" iPad for portability sake).
  • What if the screen were exactly the dimensions of a Letter paper- 8.5x11", with nearly zero bezel? I think 8.5x11 works out to 13.5" or something close to that. Sent from the iMore App
  • Just did the math in this, and if you subtract .5" from all 4 margins you get a diagonal length of 12.2", the exact size being rumored for the new iPad Pro. That would give you a full paper sized display without having to display the unused margins.
  • Love this article! I have been saying pretty much the same thing (and waiting for a decent stylus) for years now. It's good to see the argument all laid out rationally by someone who knows what they are talking about. I'm so tired of commenting about styluses and having some goon reply with, "Just buy one, there are lots to choose from." There *aren't*. There isn't one single stylus that you can just pick up and write with on an iPad the same way you would with a piece of paper and a pen.
  • For drawing there's this: modbook.com it's a MBP turned into a tablet.
  • So, if apple does does come out with a larger iPad and a stylus, the modbook will have competition, as it's not cheap, since it's a modified MBP.
  • I am sure Microsoft won't waste time copying this idea!!
  • If Apple does this, then Microsoft's next move will be buying Wacom.
    That is, unless buying Wacom is the way Apple does it.
  • Microsoft just switched away for Wacom, why would they buy them? Posted from the amazing whatever device I can afford because I'm a broke college kid.
  • Is your statement a knock on Microsoft or a dig at Apple? Microsoft already uses a stylus with their pro line of tablets so in this case it would be closer to Apple copying Microsoft than the other way around. To be honest though, I don't understand how incorporating good ideas into your own products is ever a bad thing; as long as you aren't infringing on patents (and the patents aren't ridiculously broad). The end user will be the one to profit from the integration of ideas. Sent from the iMore App
  • Here’s a conspiracy theory for y’all: In the summer before the Apple watch announcement, Apple ran ads featuring the iPhone as a fitness oriented device. And fitness has been one of the main things that Apple has highlighted the most for Apple watch... And since Apple is currently drumming up Apple devices as artists’ tools... Maybe they are in the first steps in their communication plan to announce the pen/stylus/thingy device aimed at artists and designers. (please don’t take my message any more seriously than it is intended, which is not-serious-at-all!)
  • As a photographer who uses a Wacom tablet regularly, I'd love to have a nice stylus and better software support for quick editing and retouching while I'm on a job.
  • Or maybe integrate natively with the new Photos app that's coming out. Perhaps a new use for the Force Touch and Taptic Feedback technology in the Watch.
  • A stylus is the WRONG thing to do. Despite the huge advertising push, Surface Pro uptake is dismal. A stylus is 1990 all over again. And, yes, I was a WACOM user for many years. A stylus slows you down. Jobs was right.
  • I would like to have one (a GOOD one) for making quick diagrams and jotting down quick notes (with OCR?). It would HAVE to have the precision and accuracy of a sharp pencil or fine line ball point. Yes, having to switch from my finger to a stylus would take more time than I like and it does feel distinctly un-iPad-like. Maybe I just need to get an Inkling...
  • In some ways. He is right. In some ways he is wrong. Ideally they could have a pressure sensitive touch screen. That's my dream for the iPad. If they can't do that. Then you will need a stylus for drawing. Procreate allows drawing and quick rotating like your working on a real sheet of paper. You can quickly move between gestures with your hand. You can't with a pen. But pens are better right now for drawing. Though you can draw without a pen.
  • Ever heard of the word "Choice"?
    Do you draw?
    Do you write?
    Do you even lift bro? If you answered yes to at least 3 of those questions, you would want a stylus.
  • Only time will tell, the patent was already submitted, if it does some would have to eat there words Sent from the iMore App
  • Because they wanna copy Samsung ? Sent from the iMore App
  • Thank you for this article. It's really quite ironic that despite its name one thing ipad has never been good at is a writing pad. I would add that for some reason one large (18 mln in US alone) target audience for stylus use that hardly ever gets mentioned is college students. I am a university professor and I teach large classes regularly. In this demographic (college students) tablet ownership is very high (ipads mostly). Students would like nothing better than to ditch paper for note taking so they try to do it on tablets. the notion of taking notes with diagrams and formulas using fingers is beyond laughable so they use styluses. works terrible with ipads for reasons you mentioned. those few who have something with active stylus support like surface pro 3 do quite well. My TA bought a surface pro 3 last semester and he is simply ecstatic about it note taking capabilities. Me, I am just envious. Styluses are clearly not for everybody and should not be aimed in ANY way for the general tablet operation. But for specialized uses they are indispensable and the combined target audience is high enough to warrant Apple's attention. I am keeping my fingers crossed.
  • Thanks for writing this and I can't wait to see reviews. Where we live, places that would sell this type of technology are almost non existent. A stylus is something I want to try before dropping a lot of money on it.