The Apple Pencil: A Less Cynical View

Apple announced, among other things yesterday, the iPad Pro with support for a stylus called the Apple Pencil. This has the Internet Cynics Brigade doubled over in laughter as they post meme pictures with Steve Jobs saying that if you see a stylus or a task manager, they’ve done it wrong. They’re also busy posting pictures of how the iPad Pro with its keyboard cover looks a bit like the Microsoft Surface Pro with its kickstand and Type Cover (and for the record, that’s what I’m writing this post on – a 2 year old Surface Pro with a Type Cover). And yet other geniuses are claiming that because Android has phones with stylus support (like the excellent Samsung Galaxy Note series), Apple is just copying.

To that last bunch, I’d like to remind them of the Newton, but that was probably before they were born. Apple had a stylus-based tablet back in the the late 90s. Yes really. I still have my Newton MessagePad 2000, and I really loved it. Until Steve Jobs killed it. But the Newton was great, despite Doonesbury and the press making fun of it. The handwriting recognition was pretty good, and the ability to take and file notes was terrific. Apple had to invent ways to copy and paste text using the stylus, so they did, and it was very clever and worked well. I could also mention the many Palm PDAs I had over the years that used a stylus. So for those that think Apple stole the idea of a tablet with a stylus from any current competitor, think again.

Now, on to the real question: Is an iPad with a stylus useful?

The short answer is maybe, but perhaps not right away.

I’ve been using tablets with a stylus for a long time, and I really like them. I bought a very early Tablet PC and loved it. I could take notes on it, give lectures by writing on the screen or marking up content while sending to a projector, etc. Microsoft’s handwriting recognition is great, and these days, OneNote is a terrific tool on a stylus-based PC. When my first Tablet PC died, I bought a new one and used it for years. Then I bought a Surface Pro and am still using that. I love being able to write on the screen with the stylus! Even my terrible handwriting is searchable in OneNote. And marking up research papers was so great on screen rather than on paper.

The difference between a Surface Pro and an iPad however, is twofold. First, the sensors in the screen are very precise on the Surface Pro so the stylus registers precisely, whereas the sensors in existing iPads (not the iPad Pro) are much more coarse, since they’re designed for finger tracking. I’ve used a stylus with my iPad, and it isn’t a great experience, as it isn’t precise enough to write well. Second is the software support. As I already mentioned, Microsoft has a long history of handwriting recognition, so stylus support is top-notch. Apple had excellent handwriting recognition support on the Mac (presumably inherited from Newton technology), but that hasn’t made an appearance in 10 years or so. So that means Apple will either have to resurrect that technology for iPad Pro or it won’t be a good note-taking device.

Since it looks like they are more intending it for artists and for “professionals,” handwriting recognition may not be a priority, in which case, it will be support from 3rd party Apps that will define whether the Pencil is a success or not. Since I’m not an artist, I can’t speak to drawing on a tablet with a stylus, but I could imagine it would be a good experience, and there’s no reason to believe Apple won’t get that experience right.

For all the people making fun of the $100 price tag of the Pencil, I too think it is a bit much. A stylus came with my Surface Pro, though a replacement lists for $50. I don’t know if the Pencil is twice as good as my stylus, but it probably isn’t outrageously overpriced if you have need of it.

In short, I can’t predict the success (or not) of the Apple Pencil, but I’m not their initial target audience. I can say that using a stylus with a tablet has its uses, and if the software support is there, the experience can be excellent, as it is with my Surface Pro. But I don’t think it is the huge joke that the Internet seems consumed with today.

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