Google: Take note of the stylus in the enterprise

With a stylus, you write words and draw pictures without switching apps. Keyboard and voice can't do that. Andy Wolber explains why he thinks stylii aren't second-class input methods.

Three styluses

Support for a stylus varies among major vendors. Microsoft promotes the pen with Surface systems. Apple leaves stylus-making to third-party vendors. Google seems to agree with Apple. The company's Material Design document states that "touch, voice, mouse, and keyboard are all first-class input methods." By omission, Google relegates the stylus' status to that of a second-class device.

Observe how people take notes in your next meeting. You'll likely notice that people write (on paper) or type (on a physical or virtual keyboard). Maybe Apple and Google are right: digital notetaking with a stylus seems rare.

Yet people have made marks to convey meaning with tools for thousands of years. Gu Kaizhi painted scrolls with a reed in the late 4th century (C.E.). Leonardo DaVinci made notes with pen and ink in the late 15th century. Pablo Picassosketched portraits with a pencil in the early 20th century.

Samsung embraces writing instruments with their Galaxy Note line. The "Note" in the name means exactly that: you can create a digital note with a pen. With the Note, a stylus is a first-class input method, along with touch, voice, and a virtual keyboard. That's possible, thanks to the architecture and licensing Google allows with Android.

People who draw may quite naturally prefer Galaxy Note devices to fingertip-first systems. Ask an illustrator to choose to use a pen or a finger to draw, and most will choose the pen. Illustrators might use Autodesk's Sketchbook Pro, while animators might try FlipaClip. Both apps work best with a stylus, not a fingertip.

A stylus eliminates laborious workflows for music composers, too. Until recently, a composer had to first choose a note's duration (e.g., quarter note), then place the note on a music staff. NotateMe allows a composer to write the note directly with a stylus, in much the same way that Mozart might have written with a pen on paper. The multi-step sequence of "pick a duration, then a pitch" is gone, thanks to a stylus and innovative software.

However, the benefit of a stylus isn't limited only to creative applications. The obvious business use of a stylus is to fill in forms or sign documents, using apps such as Adobe Reader and DocuSign.

Note-takers also benefit from pens. Standard word processing programs limit data entry to typed text: to add an image, we insert a pre-made rectangular image or switch to another program. Typists tacitly concede that it is acceptable to omit images when taking notes. With a stylus, we write and draw on the same page. We create illustrated notes, much as DaVinci and Darwin did. For example, Evernote, OneNote, Papyrus, and Handrite note Notepad Pro all support note-taking with a stylus (Figure A).

Figure A

Figure A

Note-taking with a stylus, as in the Papyrus app, allows for both text and images.

People provide handwritten feedback in the form of digital notes. An upgrade to the Papyrus app adds the ability to import, highlight, and mark up PDF documents. Attorneys, managers, students, and teachers all might find this type of annotation useful, since the stylus offers the ability to scribble words and images.

MBAs and accountants might try the MyScript calculator, which converts handwritten calculations into computed results (Figure B). Scrawl "10,000 x (5+10%) =" and the program converts the writing into numbers, then displays the result: 55,000. Scribble over the 10% with 15% and the result updates to 60,000. Add the MyScript Stylus (beta) app to your Android device to handwrite instead of type. For example, open a Google Sheet, and the app will convert handwriting into text or numbers for each cell.

Figure B

Figure B

Styluses aren't just for creatives: the MyScript Calculator supports handwritten calculations.

Handwriting adds a personal touch to a message. A digitally written "Thank you for being our customer!" note conveys a human touch that a typed message lacks. This holds especially true when we recognize the writing of friends or colleagues. Digital writing adds a bit of variable humanity into our otherwise nicely legible world.

Even the Google Translate app supports handwriting recognition — and translation — for several languages (Figure C). Of course, writing with a fingertip works, but writing with a stylus might be easier for many people.

Figure C

Figure C

Google Translate includes handwriting recognition and translation.

Cost and compatibility issues have historically limited widespread stylus adoption. Digitizer screens, such as those found on the Samsung Galaxy Note and Microsoft Surface series devices, offer pressure-sensitivity and palm rejection. These devices works exceptionally well with styluses but increase production costs. Compatibility may be an even bigger problem: notes taken in one app often don't export well to other apps. We need a universal translator for digital ink.

There's a reason people don't take notes with fingerpaint during meetings: typing or writing works much better. People have been typing since the mid-1800s, but we've been writing and drawing with stylii for thousands of years. It makes sense that Google's Material Design standards support touch, voice, mouse and a keyboard — but I think that writing with a stylus has value, too.

Do you find a stylus useful? What tasks do you accomplish with a stylus? Share your experience in the discussion thread below.

About Andy Wolber

Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.

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