Is the tablet stylus making a comeback?

The stylus has come a long way since its early days on the first Microsoft Windows tablets. Now a new generation of stylus tech is available, and Samsung's not alone in considering it for tablets.

Samsung Galaxy Note

If indie bands can dress like Fleetwood Mac circa 1975, and women in New York City can sport leg warmers like "Flashdance" extras, why can't Samsung bring back the stylus pen for tablets and smartphones?

It seems like the company just might try to revive this old trend, much like those indie rockers and fashionable hipsters of New York City are bringing back bygone fashion trends many of us who lived through them the first time wish we could forget.

Ryan Bidan, a product marketing manager for Samsung, told Laptop in an interview published this week that that the company may bring the Galaxy Note's S Pen stylus to tablets, along with some "3D gesture" technology.

"I think a pen interface continues to make a lot of sense across a number of screen sizes, like the larger is more obvious of those," Bidan said in the interview. "That's about as specific as I can be without announcing a product."

Back in the day when tablets first arrived on the scene, styluses (or styli, if you prefer) were all the rage. Over two decades ago, Microsoft introduced Windows for Pen Computing. Then there were the pen-based "tablet PCs" from IBM, Toshiba, Fujitsu, and others. And they all used a stylus for input into the tablet.

And why was that? Necessity. The early tablets used resistive touch screens, which required users press down hard on the screen to register an input. And a finger simply wasn't enough to do the trick. But in the mid-2000s, capacitive screens started to come on the scene. And tablets using this technology didn't need the stylus to make accurate inputs into the device.

Then Apple launched the iPad in 2010, which uses a capacitive screen and does not come with a pen or stylus. In fact, Apple's late co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs detested the stylus and associated it with failed products. When asked at an Apple event in 2010 if the iPad would ever use one, he spoke of his competitors' products:

"If you see a stylus, they blew it."

I know it may be heresy in the tech world to say that Steve Jobs was wrong. But maybe he was. Sure, a stylus or digital pen can get lost between the cushions of the couch. (At least that's what one editor at CNET said happens all the time to her son's Nintendo DS stylus.) But sometimes your finger just isn't enough when it comes to drawing or painting. If it were, then the Mona Lisa would have been a finger-painting.

Sometimes artists need a more refined tool. This is probably why third parties have developed their own apps and styli for the iPad--there are dozens on iTunes that can be used with the iPad to render fine lines for sketches, drawings, photo retouching, and even digital painting.

And perhaps, even Jobs and his beloved Apple may have had a slight change of heart when it comes to the stylus. In July 2011, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office published two of Apple's patent applications relating to stylus input on capacitive touch screens and other surfaces.

One of those describes a stylus that uses a heated conductive tip. The stylus can be charged when inserted into the touchscreen device for storage. And the second patent describes a stylus that could be used to write on any surface and then it displays what's written or drawn on a separate computing device, kind of like a Livescribe pen .

What to make of Samsung's stylus
Like Apple, Samsung has not offered its own stylus with its Galaxy Tab, Google Android tablets. But it recently introduced the Galaxy Note, an oversized smartphone, that uses its S Pen stylus technology as one method of input.

I checked out the Samsung Galaxy Note at CES and I'll admit that the 5.3-inch screen and tricked-out stylus aren't for everyone. But I was generally impressed with the performance of the device. I am not an artist by any stretch of the imagination, but I found some useful applications for the S Pen. For example, you can take a screenshot of a map and use the S Pen to trace the route that you'll be taking directly onto the map. You could also take a screen shot of an article and make notes in the margins, highlighting and underlining excerpts.

Clearly stylus technology has come a long way since the days of tablets using Windows for Pen Computing. Back then the technology was immature. Early handwriting recognition technology was inaccurate. And there weren't enough good applications to make a business case for owning such an expensive device.

The Samsung Galaxy Note is one proof point that the technology has improved. And it's not just the stylus that has improved, but the way in which Samsung has packaged the software to use the input from the stylus is also more advanced. In November, Samsung released a software development kit that will allow developers to add S-Pen input to their apps.

Stephen Vilke, co-founder and CTO of the mobile startup Framehawk, had been looking for a mobile device with a stylus for a long time. He tried the HTC Flyer when it came out last year, but he said he was disappointed by the accuracy of the pen. And there was nowhere on the device to attach the stylus so he wouldn't misplace it. After seeing the Samsung Note at CES this year, he bought one. And so far, he says, he loves it.

Vilke said he was impressed with how Samsung integrated the input from the stylus into the device, allowing users to double-tap the screen to enter the note-taking app or allowing people to temporarily hide their note while referencing an e-mail. He was also impressed by the the screen capture functionality. But he said his favorite thing about the device is Swype, a keyboard application for Android devices that allows people to type much faster by swiping keys on the virtual keypad. Vilke said the application works even better with the stylus than it does with his finger.

"Swype with a pen is genius," he said. "Your hand barely moves. And I can whip out text way faster now, since I don't move my hand all over the screen."

Vilke said he uses the stylus about 60 percent to 70 percent of the time now, because it's just easier and more natural for him to use than his finger. And because there is a built-in slot for the stylus, he hasn't lost it.

"This may sound crazy, but the stylus is more natural for a guy like me who spent his school years with a pen or pencil in my hand," he said.

If Samsung and other developers can translate many of these same apps and functionality into larger tablets, it could find an enthusiastic niche market. And it won't be the only company including a stylus in their products. The Ice Cream Sandwich version of Android comes with stylus support built in, so other tablets may also introduce tablets stylus support. Microsoft's upcoming tablet software Windows 8 will also include support for both finger and digital stylus input.

But Samsung and others looking to bring the stylus back will have to be careful about how they introduce and market these products. Recent products highlighting the stylus as an important feature, such as HTC's Flyer tablet, have been big commercial flops. Of course, this may have been due to other issues, such as pricing and overall device performance. But it's still something to consider: most products marketed for their stylus have not been hits.

Still, if Samsung's stylus technology is better than the technology used in other products, or it's able to integrate the input method more seamlessly into the product, it could strike a chord with all those artists looking to add a stylus to the iPad. After all, if leg warmers can make a comeback, certainly the tablet stylus can become vogue again, too.

 

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