Despite protestations to the contrary, yesterday was not a happy day for FiftyThree. The small American company, which makes its money by selling an iPad stylus called the Pencil, saw Apple announce an iPad stylus also called the Pencil. The good news, though, is that FiftyThree had some advance warning about this incoming threat, having worked with Apple on making its Paper drawing app compatible with the new Pencil model. That's given the team time to consider its best response and, aside from aiming to attract new Apple Pencil users to its software, the company will also broaden out the compatibility of its own Pencil, starting with the iPhone.
Released today as a free download from the App Store, Paper 3.0 brings a major update to the interface and is now finally available for iPhone as well as iPad users. The app doesn't require the physical Pencil stylus to work, and brings with a new focus on visual note-taking that should make it compelling even without extra hardware. I was given a walkthrough of the new software by FiftyThree boss Georg Petschnigg, who introduced it by saying that "Paper's always been about where ideas begin." The thinking and design behind the new app was driven by how people capture ideas on their phones.
The most obvious feature that any note-taking app requires is speed. That's why the Paper interface has an almost omnipresent "+" button at the bottom of the screen, which gets you into the note creation tool immediately. From there, you can tap out a text note as usual, with easy — not intuitive, but very fast once you learn them — lateral swipes allowing you to format text and create bulleted lists on the fly. Alternatively, you can sketch something, using the full suite of Paper tools (which used to be an in-app purchase, but were made free for all in February), or use the camera to snap a photo.
An excellent app, even without the Pencil
Images, says Petschnigg, "have become actually one of the most commonly used ways that people capture their ideas on the go," and so the new Paper app allows you to quickly sketch on top of pictures or highlight particular areas of interest. The really neat thing is how these three input modes are automatically integrated: I can put together a grocery shopping list in the text editor, photograph my empty fridge with the camera, and annotate where all the fresh produce will go once I complete the task of going to the store. It all just flows very naturally.
Navigating between your Paper-ed ideas is done via a series of free-floating "spaces," which are essentially sticky note boards, "but without the sticky." Pinching to zoom is an important interaction here, and it serves as a substitute for a back button: if you keep zooming out, you'll exit your current note to view the space it is in, and from there eventually end up on your home screen, which gives you an overview of your spaces and stacks up all the note cards. It's a friendly interface, if somewhat unruly.
FiftyThree's goal with this new app is to replace a bunch of others you might already be using on your phone. If you keep lists in one place, written notes in another, and a bunch of inspiration photos in your camera roll, then Paper wants to lighten your app load and take care of all of them in one spot. It certainly makes sense if you subscribe to the company's premise that ideas should all be collated together, no matter their type or format. I'm not entirely convinced that the gesture-heavy interface adopted by Paper is quite as swift and intuitive as the company claims, but it certainly does an impressive job of streamlining the process of recording information in a fast and easy way.
Perhaps the most underwhelming part of the new Paper app on the iPhone is actually its interaction with the Pencil. It functions perfectly well, but the limited size of the 4.7-inch iPhone's screen made for a cramped experience. The Pencil has a rather flabby rubber tip that makes precise input difficult, and I was left feeling far less in control of the stuff I was drawing than while using my fingertip. Perhaps the larger 5.5-inch iPhone Plus models would fare better in this respect, though I personally feel like anything smaller than, say, the iPad mini just wouldn't benefit much from the use of this stylus.
Android compatibility is coming, eventually
Using the Pencil on the iPhone has left me unimpressed, however the Paper app itself marks a fine update and an overdue arrival on Apple's flagship smartphone. FiftyThree's Petschnigg tells me that the company's "business model is still to sell the hardware," and its Pencil is "the market share leader in the digital stylus market now." In order to keep that momentum going, FiftyThree might need to introduce a more phone-friendly version of its stylus, while also expanding to other platforms like Android tablets. Petschnigg notes that FiftyThree has already listed a job opening for an Android engineer, so if you want to see Paper supported on your non-iPad device, the opportunity is there to go and make it happen.
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