In 2010, Steve Jobs was asked what he thought about styluses for tablets. In 2010, tablets were just starting to really take off, with the release of the first iPad that year kicking off a competitive technological arms race. At the IOS4 press event Jobs was asked about tablet technology and he said, “If you see a stylus, they blew it.” With the recent release of the iPad Pro and its $100 stylus accessory, some are claiming that the Pencil is another example of Post-Jobs Apple tarnishing the Apple brand once again, but I think it’s important to reflect on context of these design decisions and where the market was five, ten, or fifteen years ago.
“If you see a stylus, they blew it.” -Steve Jobs, 2010
Back when Jobs referred to the stylus as a marker for failure, the market was completely different than it is now. Screen technology that was present in the iPad took advantage of capacitance to work – a plastic PDA-type stylus wouldn’t even work on it if the user wanted it to. Before the iPhone, most touch screens were resistive, meaning they read the location of pressure based on the physical connection between two electrically charged substrates. Anything that could inflict pressure would work.
Capacitance touch screens, which are almost universally used in phones and mobile devices now, rely on the electrical resistance of the user’s skin. When someone touches a capacitive screen, an electrical charge drops at the point of contact and the screen reads that as a touch event. Pressure doesn’t change anything (outside of the new 3D touch screens), and inorganic materials often don’t work: that’s why a traditional stylus won’t work and neither will your fingernail.
Resistive screens are cheaper to manufacture and were widespread prior to 2007. Because of the physical deflection needed to activate the sensors, a stylus was the best option. While you could use your finger to navigate through Palm Pilots or other PDAs, it wasn’t a smooth experience.
You see, when Jobs was first asked about competing tablets and he mentioned the stylus, he had history to reflect on. When he was brought back into the Apple fold in the late 90s, one of the first things he did was axe the lagging and unsuccessful Apple Newton PDA device. It was a small PDA (about 6 inches) that used a resistive screen with a stylus, but was hampered by poor software performance and competition from the Palm Pilot.
While the execution of the concept wasn’t ideal, Jobs liked the concept of the Newton enough to begin research on Project Purple in 2004, which culminated in the release of the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010.
So sure, of course he would point out that any tablet trying to compete with the iPad in 2010 that came with a necessary stylus had already failed. He saw it happen through his own company only years before that. He wanted a direct relationship between the device and the user, without an intermediary pen.
While not as zingy, it might have been more accurate for Jobs to have said, “If anyone wants to release a tablet now, it can’t have a resistive touchscreen, which is frustrating to use and cheap feeling, and by extension, it cannot require a stylus to use. It should be natural and intuitive.” The bar had been set and couldn’t be ducked under. It had to be hurdled. As Rajshree Agarwal, a professor at the University of Maryland observes in a paper about Product Technology Strategies relating to Firm survival, “Firms offering products incorporating the newest technology have higher survival rates than firms that do not.” The release of the iPod was the culmination of all the newest technologies on the market brought to fruit for music players. The same is true for the iPhone and the iPad.
The release of the Pencil for the iPad Pro doesn’t change that idea. The Pencil is Apple’s first-party answer to a question that third party manufacturers and software developers have been trying to answer for years: how can I draw on an iPad?
The problem goes back to the differences between resistive and capacitive technologies, as well as the Apple Newton PDA.
You see, the Apple Newton had a “killer feature” that was less killer and more of a mark against it due to performance issues. It could recognize handwriting and convert the gestures into text. It failed more often than not, which hurt its reputation enough that even when the software was updated to improve performance, it was too late.
Resistive touch screens can be very precise, but only with the addition of a stylus. Fingers are a little… soft to be very accurate when applying adequate pressure to activate the sensors. Capacitance touch screens are much better at that precision because fingers can be lightly brushed and not entirely obscure what the user is trying to tap on.
But because capacitive touch screens rely on a charge drop from contact with a conductive surface, it’s very hard to make precise styluses that can reliably activate the sensors. If you’ve used a stylus for your smartphone or tablet in the last couple of years, you’ll have noticed many of them look less like pencils and more like erasers. The larger surface is necessary to reliably activate the sensors. Any models that include smaller tips are generally hiding the larger surface somewhere: usually inside the tip or recessed somewhere else.
The Pencil bridges the gap between resistive accuracy with styluses and capacitive ease of use by integrating sensors within the pencil to determine angle, pressure and by demanding the iPad double its touch screen polling rate to make sure the act feels smooth. It’s jarring to try and draw with a stylus and have the mark lag behind the gesture by even a fraction of a second.
What I’m saying is, the Pencil isn’t a mark on Apple for going back on their word, it demonstrates the company grasping a changing market, one where artists demand performance, and will eventually get it elsewhere if Apple doesn’t provide the tools they need. It happened in the 90s when Apple started losing market share to Microsoft, and it could happen in the tablet and mobile computing world. Android phones already dominate the market share for mobile devices, but are subject to a lot more splintering than Apple devices.
Companies will die if they don’t constantly innovate. Is it really fair to criticize them for following through with a technology when it was ready to be pushed to the next level? At worst, it can be claimed it isn’t innovating at all, and at best, it can be considered revolutionary. It’s hard to tell which will be which from the beginning.
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