Is the Stylus Coming Back in Style?

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Maybe Jobs wasn't right, drawing with fingers doesn't match need for precise strokes

­As touch-based computing exploded over the past several years, the stylus seemed to quietly fade from view. But recent developments indicate the stylus is coming back in style and may occupy an increasingly important space especially as tablets take on enhanced performance and capabilities for digital artists and creators.

The tablet and stylus have a long history together. Earliest records indicate the stylus was used around 4000 B.C. as a bronze or bone tool used to scrawl on moist clay tablets. Stemming from the Latin word stilus - meaning "a stake; a pointed instrument, used by the Romans, for writing upon wax tablets" - the ancient stylus was an early ancestor of the everyday pencil or pen, as well as the more modern stylus used on PDAs, smartphones, tablets and computers.

In the late 1980s and early '90s, the personal digital assistant (PDA) ushered in a new generation of mobile computing led primarily by the popularity of the Palm Pilot.

When the iPad launched in April 2010, it was missing the familiar stylus.

"Stylus computing has been around for quite a long time, there were some issues with implementation, and then there was one major blocker. Steve Jobs made some really great calls. One of his greatest virtues was that he made calls," says Michael Gough, Adobe's vice president of experience design. "He created a lot of clarity of what Apple would and would not do. But it didn't mean that he was always right."

"One of the things he said was you don't need a pen or a pencil. Well those of us that have tried writing with our finger or drawing with our finger know that it is a substandard experience," says Gough.

A Difference of Opinion

Despite the recent onslaught of pen-based tablets, stylus designers and manufacturers have differences of opinion over whether the stylus will make a strong comeback.

"It's possible the mass-market demand for tablet pens will decrease," says Peter Skinner, co-founder of TenOneDesign, a firm that designs styli, cases, apps and stands. "Our first product launch was a pen for the original iPhone in 2007. Since that time, demand for an iPhone-specific stylus has dropped even though iPhone shipments grew. This is, in our opinion, largely because the market's perception of a phone needing a stylus changed."

Will styli for tablet follow the same track?

Several recent developments indicate the stylus is coming back. Several tablet manufacturers are including precision styli in their offering, not only to provide additional functionality but also to enable artistic creativity. Popular tablets that come with pens include:

  • Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 was introduced with its proprietary S Pen.
  • Microsoft Surface Pro - the Surface Pro 2 incorporated Wacom's proprietary digitizer layer, the Surface Pro 3 transitions from Wacom in favor of an active capacitive stylus.
  • Fuhu DreamTab uses Wacom technology as well.
  • Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 uses a battery-free digitizer pen.

Even Adobe has gotten onboard with pen-based computing with its recent announcement of its first-ever hardware product, the Ink and Slide, a precision, cloud-based stylus - which stores color pallets, brushes and even clipboard items in the cloud - and ruler for iPad users.

"Tablets may be subject to the same perception shift. When the iPad launched, a common knee-jerk reaction was, 'Where's the pen?'" says Skinner. "Since that time, we suspect many people have been trained to think of a tablet as touch-only without the need for pen input."

Douglas Little, senior public relations manager at Wacom, disagrees.

"Pen input continues to grow. It's an alternative input method that all of us can relate to. Among professional digital artists, designers, animators, film editors, photographers, etc. the pen is a vital piece of equipment in their tool kit," says Little. "For the enthusiast, hobbyist and general consumer, the pen provides a clever and fun way to be creative."

Adobe's Gough says mice and keyboards block creativity while pen-based activity encourages it.

"There is something about the overall experience of the combination of the digital tools and the analog tools that helps people get past blocks. Whether it's creative blocks or just a general discomfort, it seems to unlock some kind of energy that makes them want to do these things."

"By bringing these analog capabilities back to the digital environment, I think we are going to unlock a lot of creativity, and we are going to make things easier to use," says Gough. "I think it will actually be a big trend."

Styli Galore

There are several types of styli in the market:

  • Passive - essentially plastic and pen-like, these styli are "dumb" and are electrically conductive, bridging your hand and the display.
  • Capacitive (active) - these emulate finger touches and can even recognize hover actions with a cursor following the pen.
  • Bluetooth (active) - building on the capacitive capabilities, Bluetooth styli have the ability to transmit pressure. Instead of the screen capturing pressure, the pen's tip or nib reacts to pressure and that information is passed via Bluetooth to the device and/or application. These styli can have additional programmable buttons for right clicking or erasing.
  • Digitizer (active) - Wacom developed a technology (Electro-Magnetic Resonance) where a "digitizer layer" is sandwiched within the device's touchscreen allowing styli to be highly precise, battery-free and pressure sensitive.
  • Combinations of the above - Some styli, like Adobe's new Ink pen - a battery powered, Bluetooth-enabled capacitive stylus - use a combination of capabilities like cloud connectivity.

"What seems to be clear is that your brain works differently with pen and paper than it does with mouse and keyboard. When people need to come up with an idea, they grab a pen or pencil," says Adobe's Gough.

With everything moving digital, stylus manufacturers hope that when consumers want to be creative, they combine the analog with the digital.

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