Using your fingers may be the most natural way to interact with a mobile device – a fact that Steve Jobs built the first iPhone's success around – but when it comes to jotting things down, most people still prefer the trusty pen and paper.
Could the latest generation of pen-enabled smartphones and tablets change that?
As mobile devices evolve from being content consumption to content creation devices, Samsung is in a prime position to lead the charge. Its Galaxy Note range of smartphones and tablets, while not the first such devices to integrate pen functionality, are consistently pushing the envelope by introducing new ways to use pen-based computing.
Microsoft Surface Pro 2 with Surface Pro Pen.
It's a move that has certainly paid off for the South Korean conglomerate. To date, Samsung has sold more than 38 million Galaxy Note 1 and 2 smartphones combined, and the company's head of mobile communications, J K Shin, expects the new Galaxy Note 3 to surpass its predecessors.
The Galaxy Note 3, and its tablet stable-mate the Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 edition, both offer a range of features that revolve around Samsung's proprietary brand of stylus, the S Pen. Phone numbers, addresses and URLs that you scribble down in the Action Memo app turn into live links that launch the relevant app when you tap on them. Anything you see on the screen can be captured to the Scrapbook app simply by drawing a circle around it, making it easy to save anything from YouTube videos and webpages to emails and Twitter streams for later viewing. The real pen-and-paper killer, however, is the ability to search across any of your handwritten notes for particular words and phrases.
Other vendors are jumping back on the stylus bandwagon, too. Microsoft introduced pen functionality to its top-of-the-range Surface Pro tablet and Toshiba now offers this on its new Excite Write tablet, whose TruPen stylus comes with a virtual eraser on the end that works over any handwritten text. Sony has opted for a slightly different approach with the Xperia Z Ultra tablet, which doesn't come with a stylus but can be used with any pencil or pen on the screen to give the same pinpoint precision of an active stylus. This is different to generic capacitive styluses designed for any smartphone or tablet screen, which simply replicate touch input.
Where it all began: The Palm Pilot and stylus.
It's funny how some things can come full circle. Earlier mobile computers such as the Palm Pilot and the Pocket PC used styluses as the main form of input; back then, mobile devices used resistive touchscreens that required more force to use and could only register one point of input at a time.
The operating systems were also built around the stylus and therefore had smaller icons and buttons. Subsequent smartphones and personal digital assistants, or PDAs, all operated the same way.
Apple changed all that with the iPhone. When Steve Jobs announced the new iPhone at the Macworld Expo in 2007, he told his rapt audience, "Nobody wants a stylus. So let's not use a stylus. We're going to use the best pointing device in the world. We're going to use a pointing device that we're all born with – born with 10 of them. We're going to use our fingers."
Of course, it isn't unheard of for Apple to go back on its word. In 2010, Steve Jobs famously proclaimed that 7-inch tablets were dead on arrival, only for Apple to release the 7.9-inch iPad mini a couple of years later. Despite Jobs' vocal disdain for styluses, Apple has also filed several patents for stylus technology in the past couple of years. In 2011, the company filed two patents relating to stylus input on capacitive touchscreens and other surfaces. Early last year, Apple filed another patent that described a stylus that would provide haptic feedback. The company followed it up with a patent towards the end of that year relating to active stylus technology.
Could Apple do another backflip and add native stylus functionality to the next iPhone? It wouldn't be the first time Apple has played catch-up to its competitors. Recent concessions include the larger 4-inch display on the iPhone 5 and the multiple colour options on the iPhone 5c, although it's a move sure to have Steve Jobs turning in his grave.
Which ever way Apple goes, it's clear that the stylus of yore has been reborn as a powerful companion to touch input, and more and more mobile devices are sure to offer the functionality in the near future.