An open letter regarding stylus support.
It's like we said on the iPad: if you see a stylus, they blew it.
- Steve Jobs
It's important to note that this quote has been taken completely out of context. The important contextual parameter missing here is that, at the time, Steve Jobs was talking very specifically about "task managers" and "quitting applications". In this regard, he's absolutely right; You shouldn't have to use a stylus to quit applications, handle multi-tasking chores or navigate the OS.
Old Windows Mobile devices were practically useless without some form of sharpened point stylus, as the old Windows Mobile OS was full of hopelessly tiny buttons, controls and concepts carried over from the Windows '95 desktop. It was, in hindsight, a poorly designed OS considering the form factor. However, to relegate the stylus to a device just used for targeting otherwise impossibly tiny UI controls is to massively underestimate the power of the pen.
In my opinion, the stylus is one of the most overlooked and under-used features of tablet computers.
They can work beautifully on tablets, given the right implementation. They're incredibly natural to use for the vast majority of the population. They can expand the scope and type of applications possible. They can enable the creation of things that simply aren't possible on other devices. Today, people sometimes believe the pen is only useful for art and note-taking apps, but this would be akin to thinking the touch screen is only useful for playing Angry Birds. Their potential is vast.
I am, of course, aware that there are a few tablets that currently support active digitisers out there, including offerings from HP and Samsung as well as the upcoming Surface Pro. Personally, I own a Samsung Slate 7, and the Wacom-powered digitiser is a joy to use with the few applications that currently make use of it.
However, it's obvious that developers are not yet exploring the full potential of the pen. This is mainly because it's very difficult to deal with the different approaches, lack of consistency and, crucially, the sporadic adoption from hardware manufacturers.
A good pen, in my opinion, should be pressure sensitive, accurate, have at least one button and a separate eraser tip. All pens should have these basic functions but, at the moment, some pens do and some pens don't. Microsoft are (seemingly) bundling a good pen with upcoming Surface Pro, which is great, but why should decent pen support be relegated to prohibitively expensive devices with "pro" in their moniker? The Galaxy Note 10.1 has shown that you can have great pen support (even if you have to buy an additional aftermarket pen to get the eraser tip back) in a relatively cheap, thin, light and non-Intel device. So, why haven't we seen any WinRT devices yet with pen support?
The problem is, if something isn't widely supported from launch, then it just won't stand a chance. For a developer, it doesn't make sense to plough time and effort into an application that will only work with a limited subset of devices, all of which happen to be amongst the most expensive.
Unfortunately, this fragmentation means that developers aren't likely to get behind the technology and open the doors to realise its full potential, which is a tragedy. It only takes a quick glance at any modern smartphone to see what app developers can achieve when given a new piece of hardware tech to play with; from accelerometers and gyroscopes to the multi-touch screen itself.
Ideally, Microsoft would have standardised the hardware technology for pens, and pushed tablet manufacturers to include hardware pen support as standard (even if the pen was a separate purchase). Imagine if every Win8 device supported the option of standardised pen-input. This would be a huge differentiator from devices such as the iPad, and a whole raft of great applications would spring up and open the floodgates for doing things that just aren't possible on other platforms. The key here is letting developers do their thing; we can all see the obvious benefits of a stylus in note-taking and art applications, but there's just so much more that can be achieved.
Microsoft have already added great software support for pens in the new Win8 UI, both in RT and Pro. So, let's see great hardware support as well.
Let's see a SurfaceRT with pen support. Let's see a Galaxy Note 10.1, with a good pen, running WinRT. Let's see Acer and Asus, Lenovo and Dell all step up to the plate with great pen support. Let's see every pen come with at least one button and an eraser, in much the same way that practically all mice have two buttons.
If manufacturers gave us the chance, developers and designers like myself would embrace the humble pen, and create new applications, markets and concepts that would wow and inspire customers.
How about it?