Bring Back the Stylus!
Steve Jobs hated it, but the iPad and iPhone could use a pseudo-pen.
Photograph courtesy Macworld Conference & Expo 2007 iPhone Presentation.
Steve Jobs hated the stylus. It’s obvious why: controlling your mobile device with a penlike thing meant having to carry something extra, and Jobs always disdained extra things. “God gave us 10 styluses—let’s not invent another,” he used to say, according to Walter Isaacson’s biography.
The stylus was one of the reasons Jobs killed the Newton, Apple’s 1990s-era mobile personal assistant. It was also one of the reasons he decided to build the iPhone and the iPad. A decade ago, when Microsoft was pushing its vision for tablet machines, Jobs considered Bill Gates’ love of the stylus a key vulnerability. “As soon as you have a stylus, you’re dead,” he said. In 2002, after hearing a description of Microsoft’s tablet, Jobs marched into his office and issued an order: “I want to make a tablet, and it can’t have a keyboard or stylus,” he said. “So could you guys come up with a multi-touch, touch-sensitive display for me?”
And that was it—the moment the stylus died for good. Over the next few years, Apple worked in secret to perfect touch computing, and with the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, Jobs sought to make the touchscreen the signature digital interface of our era. “Who wants a stylus?” he sneered at his Macworld keynote unveiling the phone. “You have to get ‘em, put ‘em away, you lose ‘em. Yech! Nobody wants a stylus. So let’s not use a stylus.”
I used to think Jobs was right. The PalmPilot, the only stylus device I’ve ever owned, was a great little machine, but I did find its stylus to be a hindrance. Because it didn’t have much of a processor, the PalmPilot couldn’t recognize normal handwriting. Instead you had to learn Graffiti, a strange script that helped the machine figure out what you were writing—and only confirmed Jobs’ argument about styluses being fussy. Worst of all, the stylus meant that I always needed both hands to operate the Palm, one to hold the device and the other to point. That’s a fatal flaw: a small, ultraportable device like a personal assistant or a phone needs to be useful even if you’ve only got one hand, and that’s impossible with a stylus.
But just because the stylus doesn’t work on a phone doesn’t mean it won’t work anywhere else. Lately, I’ve discovered that the stylus can be a perfectly useful and sometimes even transformational doohickey. Indeed, despite Jobs’ banishment, there seems to be a brisk business in styluses for use with the iPad, and there are several apps that are optimized for these pseudo-pens. (These are called "capacitive touch" styluses—ones that make the kind of electrical connection your finger would. It won’t work if you use, say, a Popsicle stick.)
I’ve been playing with a few of them over the last few days, and to my surprise, I’ve gotten fired up about the possibilities of the humble, misunderstood, underappreciated stylus. For certain uses, the stylus is way better than fingers—it’s more precise, easier to control, and more capable. A stylus lets you type just as fast (and maybe faster) than you can with your finger on a touchscreen and it allows for fine-motor skills like drawing and photo editing. Jobs wondered who wants a stylus. I do! And if tablet and app makers took some time to optimize their product for styluses, you will, too.
Today, people use styluses on iPads for specialized, pen-specific tasks like sketching. That suggests another obvious place for the stylus: writing. Though handwriting recognition has advanced enormously since the days of the Newton and the PalmPilot, writing on a screen still gets a bad rap. That’s probably because the most common use for styluses these days is on credit-card payment machines, and those devices are terrible at capturing your signature.
The handwriting apps I used on the iPad were much, much better than those credit machines. Using a stylus that cost a little more than $2 and an app called 7notes, I was able to write several lines that were instantly transformed into text. The app wasn’t perfect; sometimes it misinterpreted what I was writing (I have terrible handwriting). Like a standard touch keyboard, though, it offered error-correcting suggestions that improved my speed.
Research suggests that people type on an iPad at about 45 words per minute, which is about two-thirds as fast as we can type on a standard keyboard. People handwrite even slower—about 30 words per minute—but handwriting is also more flexible: It’s easier to enter stuff like equations and arrows and smiley faces that you can’t find on a standard keyboard. If you’ve ever tried to take lecture notes on an iPad (or a laptop), you’ll immediately recognize this difficulty.
“The research shows that the type of content you produce is different whether you handwrite or type,” says Ken Hinckley, an interface expert at Microsoft Research who’s long studied pen-based electronic devices. “Typing tends to be for complete sentences and thoughts—you go deeper into each line of thought. Handwriting is for short phrases, for jotting ideas. It’s a different mode of thought for most people.” This makes intuitive sense: It’s why people like to brainstorm using whiteboards rather than Word documents.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.