Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A new Pencil for your tablet

My Pencil from 53 arrived today. This is a new bluetooth-based stylus for the Apple iPad (iPad3 or iPad mini). Using bluetooth to communicate between the stylus and the tablet implies that this is an "active" stylus (for applications that support it). This means that the tablet can be aware of when the stylus is actually touching the surface or near it, know how much pressure is being used on the surface, use the top end as an eraser, ignore your hand on the screen, etc. It doesn't look like they are currently doing pressure sensing in this stylus. Right now, Paper by 53 (a lovely application if you haven't seen it) is the only supported application, but we might expect to see more applications support this nice addition. For applications that do not support it, the stylus acts as a normal "dumb" stylus. 

Pencil by 53
My walnut active Pencil for iPad by 53.

Now, what is really interesting is the material the designers used for this Pencil. I bought the one made out of walnut. They also offer it in graphite brushed aluminum. The Pencil really feels much more like a traditional large pencil (used by carpenters). The stylus has a rechargeable battery inside that you easily remove and plug into a USB port to charge. They claim a 90 minute charge will give you a month of normal use.

I found the Pencil to work really well with Paper and I'd love it if it worked with other drawing and notetaking applications, as Paper isn't so great for notes. I tried it as a non-active stylus with Notability, which I currently use for my notes, and it worked quite well, but having the active features would be helpful.

Steve Jobs was particularly opposed to styli after the failure of the Apple Newton (though I don't think it was the pen's fault as much as the handwriting recognition software).  I think that Jobs' effort to make a phone/tablet that would work well without a stylus was in the end a great thing for the user interface of these devices. But now that we have that user interface, it would be good to add the pen back into the mix! Microsoft has chosen to go this way on the high-end Surface and Samsung is doing a similar thing successfully on some of their phones and tablets (people in Asia much prefer to have a stylus for Asian language input). Many other applications are better with a stylus (e.g., note taking and drawing applications). 

I've been working on pen-based computing since a stint at Go Corporation, makers of the revolutionary PenPoint operating system, in 1990. This system was most famously seen in on an EO Computer with a user faxing from a beach chair in an AT&T "You Will" commercial. This is my 2nd active stylus for the iPad. The previous one (the Studio 1 Digital Pen by byzero) required an extra dongle on the tablet. Hopefully I'll use this one more often without out that extra gadget.

Even the packaging was interesting with the Pencil coming in a cylindrical tube.