Apple, iPad & why the stylus isn't dead

"It's like we said on the iPad, if you see a stylus, they blew it." The audience sniggered. There was no small sense that Steve Jobs had carefully prepared that line earlier and had it waiting; that like the repetitious declarations of the iPad as "miraculous" by every person to take the stage at its launch, this snub at Microsoft's expense had similarly been rehearsed, a barbed nugget guaranteed to set the gathered journalists, bloggers and Mac-faithful a-titter. A stylus is, after all, old-school; a flawed halfway house before the advent of the iPhone and iPad. Jobs' Apple can't see a reason for one, and they reckon you should think so too. And yet, as input methods go, the stylus remains one of the most misunderstood.

The problem is that people assume that a tablet PC is just a big Windows Mobile phone, and the fact that access to the latter has generally been far greater for most means that conception seldom gets challenged. It's a belief that leaves them sadly short-changed, too: most mainstream users – indeed, likely a fair few techies too – made the jump from resistive touchscreens straight to capacitive panels, without ever having properly experienced the accurate delight of an active digitiser.

An active digitiser, as found in a "proper" tablet PC (rather than the pseudo-models with resistive or capacitive screens that are generally aimed at a finger-favoring home audience), recognises that your fingertips are never going to be as accurate as a fine stylus point, and it wants to give you back that precision. We're not talking some plastic toothpick here, either; an active digitiser uses a special pen, usually from Wacom (who specialise in high-precision graphics tablets), that the display recognises: not only the difference between contact and no contact, but pressure and angle of touch, even whether the silicone or polythene nib is hovering slightly above the surface.

A stylus has come to be seen as an apology for a bad UI, a way of making undersized or tricky on-screen controls accessible when fingertips won't cut it. Ironically we've lost sight of the stylus as a legitimate input method in it's own right; ironic because while in computing the pen is seen as niche – the domain of artists and the unenlightened – in the real world there are many more people who can write than can type.

What hurt – and continues to hurt, Microsoft's ongoing efforts notwithstanding – tablet PCs beyond the limited mainstream access was that its good uses of the stylus were hidden behind an admittedly underwhelming UI. Microsoft made the bare minimum of iconographic changes, amounting to little more than the option for bigger versions of mouse-centric buttons, and grafted on an under-appreciated handwriting recognition engine that left users feeling one step removed from the OS and whatever mainstream apps they chose to run. The underlying flexibility of Windows – that you could load any software that would run on a regular, non-tablet PC – only served to emphasise the removed nature of the pen input. Titles like OneNote and the bundled Journal (both of which could leave handwriting in place but, thanks to background character recognition crunching and the accuracy of an active digitizer, allow you to search through your notes as it'd they'd been typed in) made it all the more obvious that everything else was a hodge-podge of mediocre usability.

Contrast that with Apple's approach to iPhone OS, at the debut of the first-gen iPhone and all it's various iterations since. As opposed to the apologist "it runs everything" approach Microsoft took, Cupertino archly scythed out any functionality that wasn't entirely conducive to finger input. Copy and paste was the most notable victim of that stance; Apple chose to cede numerous rounds in the PR war with rivals rather than push out a feature that didn't quite live up to stylus-free control. There's a sense that the appeal of Microsoft's recently-culled Courier project wasn't so much a latent desire for digital versions of Moleskine notebooks but an expectation that, by cutting away any obligation to play nicely with Excel, PowerPoint, or any of the other legacy apps existing tablet PCs promise to run, the company would be liberated to create a platform where the pen wasn't expected to deliver anything more than it's own role, would no longer be compared – and found lacking – to a plain old mouse.

As I've written before, I still think – hope – that Microsoft plan, if not to release a Courier device of their own, then to at least take the purity of purpose the project represents and bake it into a custom OS for third-party manufacturers to try their hand at. In the tablet market at the moment the obvious plan is to follow what Apple have delivered – a completely finger-centric environment – but perhaps there's space within the segment to take a different approach, to say "people love to write and sketch and touch and generally play with their creativity, let's give them a device that caters to that." The likelihood of Apple themselves releasing the "artist's iPad" rumoured for a while seems low to non-existent; wouldn't you think it would be liberating, as a company in the consumer electronics industry, to broach a niche without the spectre of Cupertino's finest over your shoulder?

To discount the stylus, as Apple have done and their evangelistic users continue to do, is to blinker yourself not just to the afterthought plastic toothpicks of disappointing Windows Mobile phones but to the UI possibilities of pen-computing at its potential best. If you ever reach for a Post-It and a Biro instead of your iPhone to jot down a memo, or write your "Dear Diary" entry long-hand because there's something reassuring and human about the arc of your cursive, ask yourself: is that a gap, an under-explored one, that remains in the market? The reality distortion field may be telling us the stylus is dead and buried, but I'm not so sure.