Tablets optimize

The return of the stylus?

Patrick Gray believes that an exceptional digital notebook and stylus might be what turns tablets in the enterprise from an R&D item to a must-have business tool.

Over the past couple weeks, I've noticed an increasing number of people using a stylus with their iPhone. I thought it was a pretty odd combination, especially since most of the styluses for capacitive-based touchscreens (like the iPhone and iPad) are a rather clunky device with a squishy rubber tip on the end, which is a far cry from the plastic "nails" of older devices.

Upon further investigation, it appears that many of the newest crop of stylus-toting smartphone users are doing so for the game "Draw Something," which lets you draw a picture while a friend attempts to guess what it is -- a long-distance Pictionary of sorts. Outside of this game-driven usage, various manufacturers of Android tablets have been touting pen-driven devices, many with more useful hardware than the "squishy stylus." This begs the question: will the stylus return?

Is the pen mightier than the finger?

My first experience with a stylus was at the hands of the original Pilot PDA, which eventually became the category-defining Palm Pilot. The plastic "nail" or one's fingernail could be used to tap selections on a screen or write in blocky "graffiti" script in a dedicated section of the screen. It was an interesting solution, since the device essentially had a handwriting-centric portion of the screen and a more familiar "touch"-based section (although touch at that point was confined to a poke with the pen or a fingernail rather than multi-touch, gesture-driven technology that's common today).

Stylus-driven interfaces continued to dominate PDAs and early smartphones, and I believe that they reached their zenith with Microsoft's OneNote application and the Tablet PC. OneNote was as close as I've seen to my dream of a digital notebook where one could write, draw, and apply intelligent functionality, like searching handwritten text without the interface getting in the way. Microsoft seemed strangely determined to keep OneNote a secret to most users, and the high cost of Tablet PC hardware kept the combination of pen and digital notebook out of reach.

Tablet PC was also hampered by an interface designed for the mouse and keyboard that was difficult to navigate with a pen (compared with the newly arrived iPad), making it a chore to get to that excellent digital notepad, which prevented my purchase of another Tablet PC. After all, if your amazing notebook application is out of batteries or takes three minutes to boot to a usable state while ideas are flying, its utility is greatly diminished.

In terms of navigating a tablet-type device, at this point, the finger is a superior tool to the pen, but the elusive digital notebook is one area where the stylus still shines. Oddly, some of the best-selling productivity applications in the major app stores are digital notebooks, but all of them are afflicted with a variety of kludges -- from only allowing writing in a certain area to avoid ones' palm from being interpreted as handwriting, to the dreaded squishy pen that further deteriorates my already inferior penmanship. One only has to look at the sales numbers for this half-baked solution to see that there's a market for a limited selection of pen-driven applications, even on the device that defined the touch-driven interface.

Opportunity knocks

Writing and drawing are still basic, visceral parts of most jobs -- police or field reporters, the programmer sketching out ideas with a colleague, and the budding entrepreneur capturing the first tentative steps toward a new business. There's an obvious opportunity here for device and software manufacturers that can successfully combine hardware and software, and a quality digital notebook might be just the application that turns tablets in the enterprise from an R&D item to a must-have business tool. If nothing else, tablet leader Apple has essentially sold us three iterations of the same device, and an exceptional writing experience could be a key differentiator in the future.

Thankfully, some of the zealotry around touch vs. stylus seems to be diminishing on the part of the device and software manufacturers. Everything from the resurgence of the stylus to brisk sales of digital notepad applications gives me some hope that we're on the cusp of a return of the stylus, although this time, it's combined with the effectiveness of a lightweight, touch-driven operating system.

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About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company, and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology, as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. Patrick has...

9 comments
DWRandolph
DWRandolph

I only got a "smart phone" a few years ago when the HTC Tilt was able to satisfy my requirement for stylus input. The prior decade was several Palm Pilots The device is used for (in descending priority); writing up my daily log as events happen, a searchable database of previous logs, contacts, email, reference documents, ebooks for the rare "spare" time. Oh, and a couple times a week there may be an actual phone call.

pmshah
pmshah

A stylus responding device which otherwise would need 2 handed operation is fine but how do you use it on a mobile when your other hand is occupied, like carrying / holding something.? I also recollect that these stylus operated devices had pressure sensitive touch pads and as a general rule that got damaged / scratched too quickly. I believe Palm Pilot was an exception to the rule. I am very happy with the capacitive touch pad (actually glass) on my Galaxy. mobile.for single handed operation. What I would

dogknees
dogknees

Stylus with full pressure, tilt and bearing sensitivity like the Wacom tablets. The main thing I want to do with a tablet is drawing and editing photos, and without a "real" stylus, it's not great.

GSG
GSG

on my Lenovo Thinkpad tablet. It's pretty cool, but the apps that accept handwriting input are scarce, and there are very few that actually work well with the stylus. I think I've found maybe 2 apps that render the handwriting well or don't have hesitations with the line lagging behind the stylus. I use mine more as a mouse. In cases where you just need to check boxes, and the app is written well, the stylus would be a great tool.

rahn
rahn

I'd love to have the features that my old Compaq tablet computer had years ago, about 8 to 10 years. I could write something on the system using it's stylus and it would do an excellent job of converting my scrawl into text. It would also store the handwriting as a graphic if I wanted it to. Not exactly a new idea, why was it forgotten in the newest batch of devices?

sperry532
sperry532

... is one of the major factors preventing me from buying a tablet... any tablet. There still doesn't seem to be any handwriting recognition software that provides reliable direct input yet. Most seems to be of the OCR variety. i.e.: Write to an image, then the image is converted using OCR. If you're lucky, and have great handwriting, you get an 80-85% accuracy. And you still spend excess time correcting whatever document you're working on. The first tablet that provides an interface allowing me to enter numbers directly into a spreadsheet cell on the tablet is going to get my money.

Malleable69
Malleable69

My first tablet was a Motion M1300. It was too big, and too heavy, and after using it for 6yrs I upgraded to the Archos. Lighter and slightly faster. But the pen features on the M1300 with the active digitizer were still the best writing experience I have had on a tablet. Using my EXOPC now, and while it is the best tablet in terms of speed and performance, I still miss having an active digitizer. Dual type touch screens that have active digitizer when the pen gets near, and passive touch when there is no pen near, is the way to go.

phronk
phronk

It's called Draw Something. And I'm pretty sure "Patrick Gray believes that a exceptional digital notebook and stylus might be what turns tablets in the enterprise from an R&D item to a must-have business tool" isn't even English. Just, you know, trying to help.

michaellashinsky
michaellashinsky

when the other hand is holding/carrying something? I need one hand to hold my phone in my left hand whether I am poking it with my right index finger or a stylus.