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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