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Microsoft can't explain why its Surface tablet needs a pen

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It’s hard to say why pens for tablets are still a thing, at least in 30 seconds

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Microsoft

What can you do in 30 seconds? If it’s an advertisement for the Surface, the answer is: a lot. For the past two years, Microsoft has been showing the tablet running the full version of Office, editing photos in Adobe Photoshop, and converting into either a tablet or a notebook on the fly. But one thing Microsoft hasn’t been able to do very well in 30 seconds is explain why the Surface needs a stylus, which in an era of stroking our screens has long seemed antiquated.

We stroke and poke our gadgets regularly

What’s the stylus good for? According to Microsoft’s TV ads, it’s good for circling things. I know because I made the positive life decision of watching every advertisement Microsoft’s made for the Surface, from the ones that aired on TV, to the multi-minute-long ones the company uses to pitch businesses.

Here’s one example, found in the company’s latest ad, called "Winter wonderland." It’s a short spot for the Surface Pro 3, which Microsoft announced in May, stacking the tablet up against Apple’s MacBook Air. The gist is that it can run desktop apps, it has a USB port, and its keyboard can come off. There’s also a pen, which is good for what? Circling things:

Microsoft Surface GIFs

This isn’t some new idea either. In fact, most of what Microsoft shows people doing is circling:

Microsoft Surface GIFs
Microsoft Surface GIFs

Or almost doing a full circle:

Half Circle (microsoft)
Circleboard

This is all stuff you can do with your finger of course, which is not a great pitch for the pen. In Microsoft’s defense — and in defense of styluses in general — it can still be quite a useful computing tool. If you are doing anything that requires precision, like architecture, mapping, or design, a stylus is still invaluable. It’s even great for just drawing, which is exactly how Microsoft explains it on its site. "Tell your story. Write, draw, and paint on your Surface Pro 3 just as you would on paper," its tagline reads.

Microsoft backs that idea up with some really smart features on its standard Surface Pro 3 pen. It’s not just a hunk of metal and plastic, but a multi-button stylus with pressure sensitivity. You can hit the button on top to launch OneNote (Microsoft’s note-taking app), then click it again to dismiss the app. There are other things, like drawing on the screen (which can be converted to text), tapping the top button twice to take a screenshot, and using the small tip to hit tiny touch points in desktop Windows apps that you’d have a hard time tapping otherwise. Microsoft also plans to open up the top and side buttons to let people pick the system shortcuts they want.

Explaining why you'd want a stylus takes longer than 30 seconds

When it has more than 30 seconds, in its business-directed ads, Microsoft shows off all those things. Most are simple case study advertisements that have schools, businesses, and hospitals showing off how they use the Surface — pen and all. You see architects sketching out designs, along with banks and businesses inking deals by having people sign their names on the tablet. There’s also a too-long-for-TV ad with NFL players and coaches, showing how you could use the pen to draw out plays and take notes during briefings. Again, all that is easy to grok, but hard to squeeze into a 30-second spot. More importantly, it establishes the pen as a tool for specialists, but perhaps not for everyone.

That idea is backed up elsewhere, by other companies that still embrace the stylus for touchscreens, but mainly for specialty products. Samsung includes a small pen to write on the screen of some (but not all) of its Galaxy phones and tablets, and has managed to do that without making them considerably thicker. Adobe recently released a stylus and ruler that work with its software to give people the feel of working with analog drafting tools. And there’s software company FiftyThree, the makers of the popular Paper drawing app for iPad, which decided to make its own stylus after the app took off.

Microsoft is not alone in embracing styluses

The big difference is that the vast majority of tablet apps on iOS and Android are designed to work just fine with just your finger. Tiny menus are replaced with lists that pop out when you need them, and small icons turn into finger-friendly buttons. Microsoft’s worked to improve that jump between the two experiences in its own Windows apps, but not all developers have. And in Surface’s case you can go from running those apps to normal old desktop software, where trying to use your finger becomes problematic. That makes the stylus less of a specialty, and more of a necessity.

Ultimately, the Surface pen remains in a tenuous position. It’s an iconic reminder of a very terrible era of using tablet computers before they became friendly to our fingers, yet it remains useful for some of the things mentioned above. To knock Microsoft for both embracing and improving the stylus is missing the point, but I think we can all agree that there are better ways to explain why you still might need it — one that goes beyond squiggling circles.

Check please (Microsoft)