Why Apple Should add Pencil Support for iPhone

on August 23, 2017
Reading Time: 4 minutes

A few months ago the United States Patent and Trademark Office awarded patent 9,658,707 to Apple. The title of the patent is: “Devices and methods for manipulating user interfaces with a stylus” and aside from describing using a stylus with portable communications devices such as iPhone and iPad it hints at the ability to do so in a wide range of apps. The words iPhone and phone feature several times in the patent. Of course, we all know too well, that not everything covered by a patent actually makes it to market so maybe we should not get too excited…yet.

Back in September, during an interview with NDTV, in response to a question about launching the Apple Pencil Tim Cook said:

“Well we launched a pencil not a stylus, first of all, and there’s a big difference and the things that people are doing with this pencil, I think that Steve would have loved. He loved to help people create. And if you’ve ever seen what can be created with that pencil on an iPad or an iPhone, it’s really unbelievable.”

Cook could have simply misspoken and whether Apple is or isn’t planning to bring Pencil to the iPhone is for anyone to guess, but I want to make an argument that it really should be considered.

Styli are no Longer a UI Crutch

Steve Jobs once said “If you see a stylus, they blew it”. And he was right. When he made that statement, styli were a way to navigate a user interface (UI) that was not ready for a touch-first experience. Even the strongest Windows supporter will admit that Windows 8 was a poor attempt at adapting a PC Keyboard+Mouse UI to a touch-first UI. The styli that Surface and many other models added was a crutch to help users navigate through that UI, help them bridge from keyboard and mouse to touch.

Things have come a long way since then. Not all vendors are seeing the role of the pen in the same way but all seem to agree that there is a role to play in the modern workflow of content creation.

In the same interview quoted above, Cook was quick to point out how Apple added a Pencil not a Pen to the iPad. While I would argue that distinction is all about semantics, I can concede to Cook that Apple’s focus was more on what Pencil could do for artists than a regular user. At least at first, Pencil was really aimed at artists as a tool to drawn, sketch, paint. With iOS 11 more use cases have been added for less art-inclined users . For instance, you can now use Apple Pencil to mark up webpages, screenshots, email, and more. You can also, now, tap Apple Pencil on the lock screen to instantly access the Notes app.

Inking on Windows 10 has clearly shown how a pen can complement nicely a keyboard and not just be a welcomed addition for artists. As with the overall tablet philosophy, Microsoft and Apple reached a very similar result coming from two very different starting points. Many of the features that Apple Pencil will support with iOS 11 have been available on Windows 10 and the Surface Pen for a while. Only more recently with the addition of Surface Studio to the Surface portfolio, Microsoft has shown a more artistic use of Surface Pen.

Bottom line, no matter what path they took, both Microsoft and Apple believe there is a role for a pen/pencil.

Samsung’s Note: from Niche to Mainstream

Styli have not just been relegated to tablets. Over the years phones such as the Palm Treo, the Sony Ericsson P910 and of course the Samsung Note family all had a stylus.

When the first Samsung Note hit the market back in 2011, Samsung might have been more concerned with differentiating from the competition than thinking about how a pen could empower users to do more, especially with the larger screen real-estate their brand new device was offering. While that first experience left a lot to be desired, Samsung’s focus on S Pen and the software support that comes with it grew making the overall experience much more enjoyable. I expect the Note 8 to be announced later this morning to show even more improvement when it comes to app support for S Pen.

The wider availability of Windows 10-based devices with stylus support and Apple Pencil on iPad have certainly broadened the appeal for styli. I expect Samsung to benefit from this wider acceptance of a pen as a real tool to improve productivity. When productivity can mean anything from drawing, to sketching a message, to enhancing a photo or quickly jot down some notes without having to open the phone first.

Keyboard, Pen, Voice…it is all about the Best Tool for the Job

Voice is the hot feature for any device right now. Yet, voice cannot be the panacea for all the interactions we have with our devices. No one interaction method can be. In fact, voice came about because touch was not seen as the only way to interact with devices either. Technically, replicating a voice interaction between humans is not an easy task when you are mixing humans and devices. Right now it also feels like humans need to learn a new language to master such interactions. Yet, voice remains one of the most intuitive UIs.

When you think about it though, using a pen or a pencil is almost as intuitive as using voice for many people. Our spelling and neat handwriting skills might have deteriorated thanks to smartphones, predictive typing and emojis but we still know how to do it. So much so, I still see many people going to meetings with a good old paper notebook and a pen. Some people do it because they do not want a device like a PC or a tablet to get in the way, others do it because writing helps them make sense of the information and better retain it.

Whatever the reason, it is obvious that one could make an argument for being able to capture a thought or a piece of information with the device that is always in your pocket. This is why adding Pencil support for iPhone makes a lot of sense to me. But of course it cannot be the Pencil that we know today as carrying that with an iPhone does not make a lot of sense given its size. Something to scale that would fit in a case rather then the actual iPhone would be much more convenient and drive more regular use.

So, what would Steve Jobs say if Apple did actually do an iPhone Pencil? Probably that creating something to enhance your user experience is very different from creating something to help you cope with it!