Stylus Wars: HTC Strikes Back

The HTC Flyer is an anomaly. So far, stylus-driven tablets have either been bargain-basement slabs with resistive touchscreens and hair-tearing usability, or expensive Windows-based machines with slick active digitizers but software more suited to desktop than pen. We've grown used to jabbing at our tablets with our fingers; Steve Jobs has even told us that's the only way a modern slate really works. So where does the Flyer come in?

Announced earlier today, the new tablet matches the Samsung Galaxy Tab on screen size and resolution, with a 7-inch, capacitive multitouch 1024 x 600 display. As you'd expect, you generally control Android (here 2.4 Gingerbread, rather than the Galaxy Tab's 2.2 Froyo) with your fingers, pinch-zooming, swiping and flicking around HTC's updated Sense UI.

What's different is the active stylus HTC has also included. It's no plastic toothpick, as we've grown to hate from resistive touchscreens, and nor is it a so-called capacitive pen which mimics a fingertip for some semblance of increased accuracy on slates like the iPad. Instead it's a truly different way of interacting with the Flyer by touch: the pressure-sensitive nib communicates its position wirelessly with the digitiser, while two barrel buttons default to erase and text-selection. To HTC's specially-coded apps, which at launch will be the only software that supports the stylus, the nib presents as a new type of touch event, distinct from a finger.

SlashGear caught up with HTC last week, ahead of the Flyer's launch, to talk about the new slate and the company's plans for the segment, and user experience manager Drew Bamford was insistent that this double-control paradigm would boost, not confuse, usability. General navigation and control will still be done by fingertip, you won't have to whip out the stylus to peck your way through tiny text menus. However, when a pen makes more sense than a finger – sketching, annotating photos and text, making handwritten notes – then the HTC Flyer gives that option.

For those used to stabbing at onscreen keyboards, that might still sound more like a hassle than a boon. HTC's primary hurdle, then, will be convincing would-be Flyer adopters that the pen makes sense for them. There's a world of difference between the scraping feel of a resistive stylus dragging out a jagged line on a cheap tablet, and the free-flowing liberation of digital ink. It's here that HTC's partnership with Evernote plays its role: a little-appreciated ability of the online notebook service is that it can recognize handwriting and thus allow it to be searched. So, if you've jotted down a list of names by hand on your Flyer, an Evernote search will include them in the results.

The partnership means that digital ink won't be limited solely to the Flyer and some proprietary format, but visible across various smartphone platforms and the desktop. No conversion, no awkward synchronization to get your Flyer notes onto your computer; just boot up Evernote and there they are. Even iOS users will be able to get in on the action, though they'll only be able to read, not create, handwritten Flyer notes.

So far, so good, but if HTC really wants to succeed then it will need to show the market that the Flyer is more than just an anomaly, that it is in fact the first step in a new breed of tablets. The company tells us that's certainly the case, that they're "not just dipping our toe into the water", but it will take hardware and software to cement that. If HTC can push out new hardware with digital ink support, as well as simultaneously open up its touch drivers and export APIs so that third-party apps and services can take advantage of the active stylus and the digital notes users create, that should go a long way to satisfying those to whom even polished tablets like the iPad feel, sometimes, like big smartphones.

Many would like us to believe that the tablet wars are already won: that Apple has spent 2010 solidifying its lead and setting the benchmark against which not only are all other slates measured, but will be found wanting. To some extent that's true, if only because it's the nature of the industry to compare what's new today to what led the pack yesterday. However, even with millions of sales and millions more to come, the consumer tablet market is still in its infancy. Honeycomb is likely to be a game-changer, HP is doing its utmost to make sure the webOS-based TouchPad is one too, and RIM is looking to shake up more than just the business segment with the BlackBerry PlayBook.

In that evolutionary/revolutionary hybrid the HTC Flyer is a wildcard. Yes, users and developers may take some persuading, but there are plenty of people unconvinced that on-screen keyboards are the pinnacle of tablet usability. A few more models will help bed down the technology, but even if Apple's iPad won the first tablet battle, the war is far from over.