Pencil'ers rejoice: Apple restoring gesture navigation

The ability to use an Apple Pencil to gesture-navigate the iPad Pro is a feature that existed at launch but went missing in the first few iOS 9.3 betas. That led to disappointment from people who were used to and came to depend on the feature. Well, good news: An Apple spokesperson has told iMore the feature is coming back!

Apple Pencil has been a huge hit with iPad Pro users, who love it for drawing, annotating and taking notes," an Apple spokesperson told iMore. "We believe a finger will always be the primary way users navigate on an iPad, but we understand that some customers like to use Apple Pencil for this as well and we've been working on ways to better implement this while maintaining compatibility during this latest beta cycle. We will add this functionality back in the next beta of iOS 9.3."

Apple Pencil doesn't rely on the same implementation of multitouch that finger gestures do. So, Apple Pencil can be used separately and distinctly from fingers. When iPad Pro was first released, Apple chose to map Apple Pencil gestures to finger gestures because it was believed that would match customer expectations — people would assume it would work that way so why not make it work that way? In part, that was because of how previous multitouch-based stylus pens worked.

There's another point of view, however, that believes since the two are separate and distinct they should be allowed to remain that way. Not just because it might better match how a pencil works in the real world, but because it might allow for different interactions — fingers doing one thing, the Pencil doing another. (You can see a hint of this in how the ruler works in the Notes app.)

Betas — where software is available to developers and a portion of the public interested in testing upcoming versions of the operating system— can be something used to experiment with different features and modalities. Four-finger gesture navigation on the iPad, which began the same way — is an example. Some people loved it immediately, others wondered why they were suddenly Fruit Ninja-ing into Mail. Eventually, Apple settled on an option in Settings.

Likewise, while some have expressed dislike for Apple removing gesture-navigation from the Pencil, others have preferred it that way. The problem here, though, is that taking away a feature people have come to expect hurts the experience and perception of the product and process. Optional settings — even if the default is switched — allows for experimentation with an escape hatch for frustration.

Either way, it's great to see Apple communicating and listening to feedback. That's the whole point of a public beta, and the whole point of constructive feedback from passionate customers, in and out of the media.

The update restoring Pencil navigation is expected to come in a future version of the iOS 9.3 beta. iOS 9.3, if Apple sticks to previous patterns, could come as soon as mid-March.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.