There's been a lot of talk lately about styluses — specifically, an Apple-branded stylus pen that might ship alongside the rumored iPad Pro.
As an artist, frequent note-taker, and all-around scribbler, I've wanted a Wacom-esque pressure-sensitive stylus since the iPad's release. I wrote about iPad styluses time and time again as we saw creative developers try and build around the iPad's hardware limitations. I've looked longingly over at Wacom's half-baked tablet solutions. And I haven't been happy.
Could Apple make an iPad stylus that actually fulfilled my wants — and those of other artists — for a tablet next year? It could. But would it want to? This year, quite possibly.
What the stylus market is
Okay, so here's the thing about styluses: Just like their real-world counterparts — pens — styluses aren't meant to do everything. You wouldn't attempt to pick up a piece of paper with a pen, right? So you're probably not going to open an app with a stylus. (Unless it's very cold and you're wearing gloves. But c'mon, there's a liquid application for that!)
That oft-quoted Steve Jobs Q&A answer on styluses? He's referring to that concept — making styluses for typing or tapping rather than using multitouch gestures. It's all about having the right tool for the right job, and in this case, yes, a stylus for tapping or general interaction seems silly. The gesture has won out.
But there are still plenty of sane reasons to have a digital stylus: Drawing. Handwriting. Drafting. Strumming a virtual instrument. For these use cases, a stylus not only makes sense — it's nigh-essential. Yes, there are many artists who've made their name on how well they can digitally paint on iPads and other tablets, but I'd argue that it's an art style, not a solution for all artistic sketching. It's still difficult to do detailed cartooning or calculated drafting with your finger, or quickly handwrite a note or a title card.
What the stylus market lacks
There are a bunch of third-party manufacturers in the iPad stylus game trying to address these users — Ten One, Adonit, Wacom, LynkTec, FiftyThree, and Studio Neat, to name a few. In just five years, they've made great strides in taking the iPad stylus from so-so spongey finger representation to mostly-accurate fineline faux pressure sensitivity.
But even the best-made styluses are limited in how well they can serve their users, because Apple's screen is simply not designed for a stylus. It never has been. The Multi-Touch sensors look for finger-sized input; it's why early styluses had big, finger-sized rubber nibs.
The smaller nibs you see on styluses today came as a result of low-energy Bluetooth technology and battery-operated styluses; they employed tricks like simulating the electric current of your finger on a small nib to get the stylus to properly register.
It's not an elegant solution. It's why so many third-party styluses have problems with lag and accuracy, and things like palm rejection are often buggily-implemented per-app features. Developers have to build around the iPad's hardware, rather than working in concert with it.
But Apple has the potential to change this.
The case for an Apple stylus
If Apple were to build a creative stylus for the iPad, the company would need to reinvent its proprietary Multi-Touch screen to incorporate a pen-type input. It could do so in a wide variety of ways, most too technical to get into here. And doing so would not only open up potential for a stylus, but for new and different kinds of inputs on the iPad screen.
Assuming Apple let third-party developers have hooks into these sensors — InkKit, maybe? — drafters and architects could have a digital compass. Paintbrush-style styluses could individually map each bristle-point to the software it interacted with.
Adding these kinds of sensors would put incredible potential into both developers' and the user's hands. But would enough people buy such an item for it to be worth Apple's time? That's the real question. Solely targeting the creative pro industry isn't much more than a "hobby" market, by Apple's standards — millions of artists might buy a stylus, but when your potential sales pool is in the billions, that looks a lot like chump change.
So why might Apple want to build a stylus now, in 2015? I've got two thoughts: new markets and new technology.
When it comes to bigger markets, I tend to agree with folks like Neil Cybart, who believes that Apple could very successfully market styluses or other like input devices to Fortune 500 companies. Take into account signing, writing, scribbling, and and whiteboard-marking, and there's a lot many businesses currently do on paper that Apple could bring over to the iPad with the proper apps and physical tools.
But, as I lamented earlier in the week, even the most precise Apple stylus is still going to feel more foreign to write on than the ease of a yellow-pad or Post-It note.
That is, unless Apple has figured out a way to make writing with a stylus feel more like writing on paper. The company could use the work it's put into haptic technology on an iPad pen or screen to make interactions feel less sterile. Or the pen could be a double-whammy: incorporating something along the lines of Wacom's Inkling technology to let you sketch on real paper and have it instantly digitized on the iPad's screen, in addition to operating as a traditional stylus.
Heck, it could even be working on something entirely new and different.
The proposed larger screen size of the iPad Pro might be a better building ground for Apple's stylus tech, as well. Adding new sensors and options to an already-packed Multi-Touch screen — all while keeping the device thinner than a pencil — might have been too much of a challenge on the 10-inch iPad. On a 13-inch iPad, engineers might finally have the breathing room.
Wait and see time
I've heard this iPad stylus rumor bandied about for almost five years now, so even with backup from fairly reputable sources, I can't say definitively that we'll see production this year. But boy, am I crossing my fingers that it does.
And whether it happens or not, I can guarantee that 2015 will be the year I do another massive iPad stylus roundup — I have about 35 on my desk right now. I may not be able to promise an Apple stylus, but I can certainly promise an article on the best styluses third-party manufacturers have to offer. Soon. Sooooon.