The pencil is mightier than the finger

A powerful quote from the late Steve Jobs, given during the Q&A following the iPhone 4 event in 2010. It clearly showed his disdain for the poor stylus. Like much analysis related to quotes from Steve, it takes the quote entirely out of context. The next sentence finishes the thought:

"In multitasking, if you see a task manager... they blew it. Users shouldn't ever have to think about it."

Yep, totally different meaning. Steve's point was if you need a stylus or a task manager to use your device, that's when you fail. Both a stylus and a task manager share the same interface property. They need to be invisible, frictionless to use.

So back to the poor stylus. It's been one of the most promised, overhyped technology since, well, forever. Remember the Momenta, PenWindows, Go or Newton? (Kids, ask your folks.) They all flopped. Beyond the fact that they were all mixed metaphors of keyboards and pens, they all suffered from two major issues.

First, the driving feature has long been handwriting recognition, which has never lived up to the hype. It's kind of simple: if you can't read your handwriting, why on earth would you think a computer could? If handwriting were ever to be a real driver, it would need to perfectly resolve all handwriting all of the time. Hasn't happened. Won't likely happen. (The ultimate handwriting recognition fail came after Newton's launch, when handwriting recognition, and the overall usefulness of the device were savaged in "Doonesbury".)

Second, most hardware has been inadequate for a stylus use case. Size, weight, battery life, and the need for keyboards along with the stylus mostly doomed all of these efforts.

"Stylus computing" wasn't dead, but it was hibernating for a very long time. Needing a stylus for navigation or text entry simply wasn't viable. Keyboards were superior, a key reason Blackberrys ruled the market for so long.

The key to overcoming the shortcomings of the stylus was going to be powerful, light, touch-enabled hardware with all-day battery life. It needed a full touch-based UI where a stylus (or a hardware keyboard, for that matter) wouldn't be required for use. Then, ignoring handwringing recognition, its main use case could focus on great apps for note taking, sketching, and drawing.

Starting to sound familiar? That's the recipe of iOS and the iPad — and beautifully. Pencil opened up a whole new set of use cases for iPad with both the PapaPro & BabyPro. As I type this on my iPhone 6s Plus, I wonder how much more useful even a phone could be as a digital Moleskine with just a little Pencil love.

Here's hoping Pencil stays updated with iOS, evolving to an open API so third parties could create a competitor (as they can with keyboards). Let's face it: Pencil could be improved. how 'bout a way to carry with iPad? Not lose the darn cap? A way to charge that isn't silly?

Yep, the finger is indeed the stylus we all own, but it hasn't worked well for me for drawing or writing since kindergarten, and finger painting. For more on the Pencil, see iMore managing editor Serenity Caldwell's fantastic roundup of the best of the best writing apps, and the most fantastic Pencil review EVER (a review so good, Apple director of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller tweeted it).

Michael Gartenberg

I’ve covered the personal technology beat for more than two decades at places like Gartner, Jupiter Research and Altimeter Group. I’ve also had the fun of contributing my $.02 on the topic at Computerworld, Engadget, Macworld, SlashGear and now iMore. Most recently I spent a few years at Apple as Sr. Director of Worldwide Product Marketing. On Twitter I’m an unverified @gartenberg. I still own some Apple stock.