Is the Stylus Retro?

by Dave Michels

The Samsung Note is a smartphone tablet thing. It is either the largest smartphone or smallest tablet depending on your point of view. I saw it at CES, and it was advertised on national television during the Superbowl. The ad poked fun at the hipsters waiting in line at (presumably) the Apple Store to buy the iDujour – at least until they spot someone with a Samsung Note. But the reaction noticed on Twitter wasn’t the praise Samsung expected – many people felt there is no way that the next big thing could have a stylus – too 90s.

I disagree. It’s the way technology works – and once again everything old becomes new again. Just like the web is turning our desktops into thin terminals again and evidently Amazon is considering opening physical stores. 

I’ve had my share of stylus pens. I can clearly remember the Palm Pilot and my Windows XP tablet computer – I don’t miss either of those devices. The capacitive touchscreen Apple introduced on the iPhone was clearly a breakthrough. But if we wanted to write with our fingers, we would have fingertip pens and pencils instead of actual pens and pencils. Fingers are just too thick to be used as a decent writing instrument. That’s why smartphones have soft keyboards – which are a pain to use.

As miraculous the smartphone is, data entry is still a pain in the rear. Voice recognition is rapidly improving toward usability – and soft keyboards are getting better. But why not have a stylus? Sometimes I just want to jot something down – like my airport parking spot. Keyboards take concentration and focus. In some apps – the stylus could also be used to hit iconic softkeys that are too small for a finger. To this day, drawing a picture – or a map with a keyboard (or finger) is not a suitable option.

I am not suggesting the end of touch screens – that’s silly – but combining the touchscreen technology with a stylus could offer the best of both worlds.

I find the Note to be a very interesting concept. I tend to look at it as a big phone rather than a small tablet – and I like the idea. It will be hard to pocket, but I’m not as mobile as I used to be- it could work. I think I am more frustrated today with a small screen then I would be frustrated with having to carry around a small tablet.

On a separate, but related note – I have been using the Livescribe pen – a stylus of sorts. It works like normal pen and paper, but captures everything written and uploads to a computer in PDF format (I posted a review here).  I like the general concept of this device – I can take notes with a pen faster than I can a keyboard and it is handy when I need to capture a graphic or slide. My complaint is that I can’t enhance my notes on uploaded to the software via the computer keyboard. They have the opposite extreme reaction.

The Livescribe software has OCR (if you write neat) so you can search for a keyword on the computer. But I don’t have neat writing. Or perhaps it is a picture that I am searching for. I think being able to add tags via the keyboard makes a  lot of sense, but they see that as retro.

As none of these human/computer interfaces are perfect, why limit people to one interface? A keyboard (soft or hard), a touch screen, a stylus, voice commands – bring it on. I don’t think you can have too many options.