I met with Steve Jobs two days after he came back to Apple in 1997. At the time, Apple was in serious trouble and I asked him how he planned to bring Apple back to health. He told me the first thing he planned to do was to go back and take care of the needs of their core customers. He defined these customers as graphics professionals, publishers and engineers. He felt the CEOs before him had let those customers down by not advancing the Mac platform.
What the Mac is particularly good at is things like desktop publishing, graphics design and engineering tasks and it was viewed by this audience as an important tool to help them get their jobs done better and faster. When I saw the new iPad Pro, my mind went back to this conversation with Steve and I could see his influence in this new product. With the addition of their Pencil stylus and the iPad Pro’s ability to use it at the pixel level, the iPad Pro is the kind of tool artists, graphics designers and engineers will love. It gives them a level of control over their projects in precise ways that should make their jobs easier.
I also see an iPad Pro link to the desktop publishing revolution of the past. I worked on the DTP project for Apple in the mid 1980s and saw first hand how a tools, in this case, the Mac, Pagemaker and a laser printer, could revolutionize an industry and eventually go mainstream. Interestingly, when Pagemaker was released and it caught the attention of graphics designers, publishers and those who did newsletters, most of us assumed this would be a niche market. But, as history shows, the concept of WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) eventually moved to word processors, spreadsheets and many other programs where layout and design was important to all types of projects. In fact, one could argue the principles of DTP, as laid out by Apple, drive the design of Web pages and many apps too.
With the iPad Pro and Pencil, Apple gives these same customers Jobs wanted to serve when he came back to Apple in 1997 another set of tools that will dramatically impact their workflow. In fact, the presenter from Adobe at last week’s event stated using Adobe Tools designed to work with Pencil meant people can now do things they could not even do on a PC. For these users, this is a big deal. I talked to some graphics designers after the Apple event and they are salivating over this product. They can now toss out their Wacom tablets and work directly on a large screen and interact with and manipulate their drawings, designs and engineering projects at the pixel level, which ultimately gives them more control of their designs or projects.
At first glance, one would think that, like DTP in the beginning, this is a niche market and only design professionals would be the target audience for the iPad Pro given the level of control Apple delivers with this new iPad. However, I learned early on the power of Apple to influence a market and, just as DTP eventually moved down to mainstream productivity tools like word processors and the like, I think this new form of input, as delivered by iPad Pro/Pencil integration, has broader ramifications for the overall PC industry. Indeed, we got a glimpse of that from the Microsoft demo during Apple’s launch event. Microsoft showed how a person could draw three circles and they quickly snapped to a clean digital implementation in the form of a chart. Even a simple arrow became a clean digital one for inclusion in a document. But I see this as the tip of the iceberg for how the role of a stylus will play in even mainstream productivity tools over time. A side note here – Bill Gates actually saw this vision in the early 1990s and he called it “Pen Computing”. But it looks like Apple will finally deliver the actual tablet/stylus package Gates envisioned and drive its impact into the broader market, something that was a key part of Bill’s vision back then.
Of course, using a stylus with a tablet has been around for years. One of the best and one I use myself is the recently launched Jot Dash by Adonis.
But none of the styli on the market today delivers the level of precise control Apple gives iPad Pro users with the Pencil. Today we may think a generic stylus is good enough to deliver similar input and design control and, in some cases, that may be true. But the thing that made the Mac great in 1985 is Apple introduced the GUI to computing and then made an SDK for developers to create apps for the Mac. The result was Pagemaker and thousands of other apps that could harness the power of the Mac to deliver great new apps. Yes, the PC guys caught up by 1989-1990 and perhaps this time, if they really understand what Apple has done with redesigning the iPad Pro to work with this specially designed Pencil stylus, they could respond to this competitive threat faster.
Apple delivers their own special SDK tools for third-party developers to create apps to make it more useful. That means we could see some really great apps for the pro users but mainstream business and perhaps even consumers may get new applications that are Pencil-compatible that will help Apple drive the iPad Pro to a broader audience.
I am not saying Apple’s use of a special stylus with the iPad Pro may have the same impact DTP has had on the market although, from my viewpoint, it does map what we did in DTP in the 1980s. On the other hand, if the software developers create apps that really take advantage of the hardware/software solution the iPad Pro and Pencil deliver together, I could see it influencing the broader use of a pen with tablets beyond traditional input and navigation. It will be fascinating to see if a “Pagemaker for Pencil” comes out or what else the creative app makers deliver for this new tablet/stylus platform.
Even though Steve Jobs’ team is delivering on his idea, Gates has to feel a bit vindicated at this point. He called Pen Computing the future of computing and, up to now, a pen has been more of a tablet peripheral. But if Apple makes the iPad Pro with Pencil successful, perhaps his pen computing vision will be fulfilled, even if it takes Apple to make it happen.