In Defense of the Late, Lamented Stylus

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Jan. 24 2012 5:48 PM

Bring Back the Stylus!

Steve Jobs hated it, but the iPad and iPhone could use a pseudo-pen.

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Today’s touch devices cater to the first, deep mode of thought, but—lacking a stylus—they don’t give us a way to jot down our nonlinear ideas. That’s why I sometimes find it more frustrating to read e-books than paper books—I can’t quickly mark up a Kindle title by underlining, highlighting, or writing notes in the margins. The best example of such marginalia—see David Foster Wallace’s—are freeform doodles, as graphical as they are textual. You can’t do that kind of thing with a keyboard.

Now, I should make clear that I’m not calling for stylus-only devices. The best hope for the stylus is that it takes its place alongside your fingers on a device that accepts both touch and pen-based inputs. For example, see this prototype that Hinckley designed:

There are some amazing things in that video, though at first glance much of Hinckley’s demo might seem a bit obvious. That’s the point: When you combine a pen and your fingers, you can get a digital interface that closely resembles how we interact with objects in the real world. Notice, for instance, how Hinckley holds down a photo with his finger, and then cuts out an image from the photo using his pen. That’s exactly the motion you’d use in real life—and to do something similar without a pen, you’d probably need to do something extra (like zoom in on your image in order to make a precise crop with your fat finger).

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The stylus, then, should have obvious appeal in this unjustly pen-free era. But what about Steve Jobs’ main argument against the stylus—it’s something extra to carry and get lost, and who wants that?

If device makers began to take the stylus seriously, I think we’ll get over the hassle. For one thing, you could make the same argument about pen and paper, but nobody ditched handwriting because we were always losing our pens. More importantly, all great tools represent something extra to carry and protect, and you’re always making a trade-off between the hassles of investing in that tool and the utility you’ll gain from it. Considering all the things we carry around with us these days—phones, tablets, power cords, cameras, memory cards—it’s irrational to fault the stylus alone. A stylus is small and cheap; if you lose it, you’ll be able to get a new one in a snap for just a few bucks. Hey, it’s a lot better than having to replace an iPad.

Jobs was famously single-minded. When he found something he loved, he loved it everywhere, and when he identified something he hated, he hated it forever. But he took his hatred of the stylus too far. God gave us 10 fingers, and they’re not the same as pens. We’d get a lot more done if we used some of those fingers to pick up a stylus.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.