Time to bet on the stylus, again

Ever since I started in the design game more than 15 years ago, the stylus has been on the verge of death, or on the verge of a comeback depending on who you talk to. Thanks to the tablet, it seems the stylus is having a renaissance. If you do a search on Kickstarter for “stylus” you will find about 31 projects. I personally have backed three of these projects and have purchased a total of 7 different styli in my quest for the perfect iPad companion (my current favorite is the Lunatik Touch Pen). Why do I want a stylus? While I love my iPad for email, Web browsing and media consumption, I know it could reduce my need for pen and paper if only I had an accessory that afforded me more precision than my chunky index finger.

The iPad’s success is a sign that we are comfortable with tablets and eventually will want more from them. I want to take handwritten notes, mark up documents, and sketch. This is not a new idea, and styli dependent devices have a checkered past. The time seems right to forgive the styli sins of the past and reconsider how a stylus could complement our tablet experience. As the tablet markets grows, this is an opportunity for tablet makers to differentiate their products from the iPad and extend the value of touch devices.

Companies have been working on a digital pen and paper replacement since at least the early ’90s. The history of these attempts is not particularly inspiring for the simple reason that it was too focused on handwriting recognition as the primary input form. Apple introduced the Newton in 1993 with the promise of an intelligent assistant that could convert handwriting to text for easy data entry and manipulation.

Microsoft and Palm entered the market in 1996 and 1997 respectively. They stayed with the assistant idea, but didn’t make it dependent on natural handwriting recognition. Yet both included a stylus with their platforms as they agreed with Apple that the stylus was a natural input method.

This idea essentially died in 2007 when Apple introduced the iPhone and made touch the new navigation and input standard. Their argument was simple: you don’t need a stylus or physical keyboard with modern touchscreens and predictive text software. You can do everything you need to do with your index finger and thumbs.

Touch works great to a point, and tablets are showing the limits. I want to do more with my tablet. A quality digital ink experience could potentially replace pen and paper for common tasks. There are times when only the precision of a pen will do. Almost since the iPad launched, apps have tried to address this need such as Notability (the third most popular paid iPad app as of the end of last month), Adobe Ideas, Upad and Note Taker HD.

I prefer to use a stylus to take notes with apps such as Penultimate. I can use my index finger, but it’s not very natural, and as my writing tends to be on the larger side, this means I can only take a few large text notes per page. The stylus lets me take neater, more useful notes and more notes per page, turning my iPad into a virtual notebook. The other useful scenario is marking up documents. I can open PDFs in Note Taker HD and use a stylus as my “red pen,” marking up presentations with notes. This is useful when collaborating with others or reviewing docs for project research.

Samsung seems to agree with the value of digital ink. They are having some success with their love-it-or-hate-it phablet (phone/tablet), the Galaxy Note. And they are taking this forward into their latest full-size tablet, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1. Gdgt went as far as to say the Galaxy Note 10.1 “is arguably the best tablet available for graphic artists or designers.”

I doubt that’s what Samsung set out to do, but success with this segment could be the key to taking on the iPad and staking out their own place in the tablet market. By focusing on and winning market share with these users, they could quite literally redefine people’s expectations of tablets and become a viable alternative for mainstream users.

Ironically, this is a tactic right out of Apple’s (non-patentable) playbook. After Apple launched Mac OS X, the MacBook suddenly became the defacto standard for power users that wanted the power of UNIX and the sophistication of Mac OS X. The Mac became the perfect Web development machine and that led to it becoming the machine of choice for entrepreneurs, startups and anyone who aspired to look like a technology sophisticate.

Could the next wave of tablet owners all aspire to be designers?

Prashant Agarwal is vice president of business design at the service design consultancy, Fjord. Prashant has more than 14 years of experience in helping clients create digital services that people love. Fjord has provided strategic direction and design for such brands as Citibank, Foursquare, Nokia and Qualcomm. You can follow them on Twitter at @fjord.

Image courtesy of Flickr user homard.net.

Fjord’s Christian Lindholm will be talking about mobile devices and user-interface technologies at GigaOM’s Mobilize conference in San Francisco (Sept. 20-21).