Is a Stylus the Next Big Thing?

As tablets, phablets, iPads and hybrids are beginning to integrate a stylus along with a plethora of aftermarket pen solutions, the question is whether this trend will transcend into large format displays?  There has been a lot of attempts to discredit devices incorporating a stylus such as Microsoft’s Surface Pro including most notably:

“You can merge a toaster and a refrigerator, but that’s probably not going to be pleasing to anyone,” quipped Apple CEO Tim Cook.

But, three years after Cook’s jab, the Surface Pro 3 is selling strong and competitors such as Apple and Google are starting to take notice.  Both companies have introduced their own laptop-tablet hybrids with an integrated stylus: the Apple iPad Pro with its “Apple Pencil” and the Google Pixel C.  Soon Microsoft will launch the Surface Hub, an ultra large touch screen display whereby the stylus is an integral part of the system taking advantage of the touch friendly functions of Windows 10 and the latest Office products.

Could it be that Microsoft is the trendsetter? Is Microsoft right after all?

Traditional PC sales have continued to plummet while the market for hybrid portable devices continues to grow and to evolve.  As these devices have become an indispensable part of our daily lives, it is only natural that people would want to get more done and a stylus could be the answer.  With finger input, applications must be written for large input targets.  But with a stylus, more precise input is possible allowing new opportunities for software developers to create clever ways to entertain and maybe to even make us more productive.

It wasn’t that long ago that the Palm Pilot era of stylus input was upended by the iPhone’s touch screen only interface.  The design transformed the market setting a design trend and making physical and mechanical input methods a thing of the past.  However, the Palm Pilot PDA for all of its technological limitations, was a revolutionary device in its own right and is the predecessor to the multi-functional smartphones of today.  It utilized a stylus primarily because it was the best screen-based method for user input at the time — touchscreens were expensive and uncommon.

“If you see a stylus, they blew it.” – Steve Jobs on the iPad

However, the winds are beginning to shift though in the tablet world and we are beginning to see a resurgence of stylus solutions for creative applications from major brands like Adonit, Wacom, and Adobe. Microsoft acquired N-Trig’s technology as an alternative to Wacom and NVIDIA has developed a stylus technology available on its own tablets. Smart phone makers are even starting to incorporate a stylus into their devices, though many are like the crude pointing devices of days gone by.

A stylus combines the responsiveness of using a finger with the preciseness of a mouse. As we expect to do more complicated, more intricate things with our digital devices, the stylus will likely be an integral part of the interface.

A stylus works best with a big writing, or drawing, surface such as a tablet but are they the best screens for this purpose?  What about a 32” display? Or say a 70” display?  Is a stylus even valuable for very large display?

The killer market for a stylus should be collaboration.   But it’s not….yet….

In the large format market there have been stylus solutions for quite a while primarily targeted towards the interactive whiteboard market.  They include active and passive solutions and aftermarket peripherals.  Promethean and Smart Technologies have dominated this space for quite some time along with a handful of smaller competitors, but all of them have seen their markets erode significantly.  Many started out in the education market and have expanded in to the business market where adoption of collaboration solutions has been very slow.

So why hasn’t this market taken off as many have predicted?

The issue is functionality and usability.  Most solutions are simply a passive stylus that performs pretty much as your pointing finger but with a little more precision. There are active solutions which help to differentiate between stylus and touch inputs and are able to optimize the stylus input for better handwriting recognition but the performance is still evolving. Granted while you can write or draw with your fingers, there are still some things better done with a longer, thinner input device.  Whether it be for drawing free hand on the display or writing notes on a virtual whiteboard, a stylus is more precise than your finger will ever be.

The problem is that the world of software is in a strange, in-between state.

The biggest issue is that the software application writers haven’t figured out the best way to make productivity happen on a touch screen. For anyone that has used an interactive whiteboard solution knows the software sometimes doesn’t play nice with other commonly used applications and is difficult to use. The problem is worse in a workplace setting, where users are locked into using certain software for certain things. Also, depending on the touch technology implemented, there could be issues with simply usability.  With all of advancements in interactive whiteboards, it has proven difficult to mimic the ease and familiarity of a dry eraser board and therefore the benefits of the digital interface have not yet outweighed the compromised stylus experience.

So Windows 10 and Surface Hub are due to be released shortly.  The solution incorporates Jeff Hahn’s elegant Perceptive Pixel touch and stylus technology with the Windows 10 interface.  From what I have seen, it is very impressive and looks to be a great advancement in moving the market to realizing the dream of an all-digital collaborative tool that people will actually use – with a stylus.

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