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Is the stylus making a comeback in mobile gadgets?

Date

Jenneth Orantia

Once destined to become a relic of the '90s, could the stylus be making a comeback?

Samsung

Samsung

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.

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.

Where it all began: The Palm Pilot and stylus.

Straighty 180

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.

49 comments

  • The stylus that came with my ijam from 10 years ago was great.

    Commenter
    Sentinel2
    Date and time
    November 09, 2013, 4:49PM
    • Perhaps what your article really should ask is whether Apple would consider adding a Wacom style digitizer to its iOS devices to allow a non capacitive touch stylus to be used?

      You can use stylus's on iOS devices now. Be they capacitive touch ones. Additionally, the use of low powered bluetooth pens are allowing a new generation of styluses to work very accurately without the need for a Wacom digitizer, Some software has built in a very capable palm rejection technology to make using conventional capacitive touch styluses to work.

      Not great tech journalism guys!

      Commenter
      Neil
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      November 09, 2013, 5:05PM
      • Yes, because we all know that everyone only really wants to read articles about Apple devices and there are not enough Apple only articles these days... We all know tablets are just iPad ripoffs, all Laptops are just MacBook pretenders... I will vote with my $$$.

        /endSarcasmFanboyism

        Commenter
        BigMac
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        November 09, 2013, 7:19PM
      • Speaking of not great tech journalism, that last photo is not of a PalmPilot. The original model was called just Pilot (although to be fair most people would know it as a PalmPilot), but the one in the photo is actually a Palm Tungsten, a much later model.

        Commenter
        AKKK
        Date and time
        November 09, 2013, 10:00PM
      • Are you able to translate this into something comprehensible to most of us?

        Commenter
        chocho san
        Location
        south coast
        Date and time
        November 09, 2013, 11:25PM
      • Not great reading or comprehension, Neil. Generic stylii were mentioned as simply replicating touch input. The point of the article was not the existence of stylii as replacements for fingers but of the additional software functionality being offered by vendors like Samsung to make stylii a superior form of interaction to fingers or capacitive stylii.

        The stylus has it's place for specific tasks but it's not the full answer, which creates the problem of constantly picking it up and putting it down. I think a lot of the functionality in the Galaxy Note software suite is more gimmick than serious new ways of working, a point-of-difference for the marketing department.

        Commenter
        MotorMouth
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        November 10, 2013, 4:45AM
      • Neil, you may well be right, I simply don't know. At least I understood the article.

        Commenter
        Paulas
        Date and time
        November 10, 2013, 8:48AM
      • Geek much Neil? I enjoyed the article, and wrote this with a stylus on a Note 3. The authors point appeared to be more around stylus functionality being a core part of the OS rather than just something that's possible. The stylus based features on the Note 3 are brilliant.

        Commenter
        SJ
        Date and time
        November 12, 2013, 12:51AM
    • The MessagePad predates the PalmPilot. So it's really been the Apple show all along.

      Commenter
      Richard
      Date and time
      November 09, 2013, 6:23PM
      • Not all styluses are created equal.
        Wacom digitiser or don't even bother. Hopefully the Surface Mini next year comes with one, because styluses rock.

        Commenter
        TechHead
        Location
        in your base
        Date and time
        November 09, 2013, 6:41PM

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