Switched On: Pen again

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Last week's Switched On discussed how some next wave notions from a decade ago were trying to reinvent themselves. Here's one more. Surging smartphone vendor HTC is seeking to bring back an input method that many wrote off long ago with its forthcoming Flyer tablet and EVO View 4G comrade-in-arms: the stylus.

A fixture of early Palm and Psion PDAs, Pocket PCs and Windows Mobile handsets, slim, compact styli were once the most popular thing to slip down a well since Timmy. Then, users would poke the cheap, simple sticks at similarly inexpensive resistive touchscreens. After the debut of tablet PCs, though, more companies started to use active digitizer systems like the one inside the Flyer. Active pens offer more precision, which can help with tasks such as handwriting recognition, and support "hovering" above a screen, the functional equivalent of a mouseover. On the other hand, they are also thicker, more expensive, and need to be charged. (Update: as some have pointed out in comments, Wacom's tablets generate tiny electromagnetic fields that power active digitization, and don't require the pen to store electricity itself.) And, of course, just like passive styli, active pens take up space and can be misplaced.

The 2004 debut of the Nintendo DS -- the ancestor of the just-released 3DS -- marked the beginning of what has become the last mass-market consumer electronics product series to integrate stylus input. The rising popularity of capacitive touch screens and multitouch have replaced styli with fingers as the main user interface elements. Instead of using a precise point for tasks such as placing an insertion point in text, we now expand the text dynamically to accommodate our oily instruments. On-screen buttons have also grown, as have the screens themselves, all in the name of losing a contrivance.

Few would want to return to those days of stylus-driven interfaces, but styli can still be helpful for a number of tasks, including diagramming, drawing and sketching, signing documents and handwriting recognition. In this regard, their status has become similar to keyboards on capacitive-touch devices -- great when you need them, but a form factor compromise when you don't. So, just as the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer works with an optional keyboard, HTC will make its Scribe pen an extra, taking a tentative step toward bringing back the stylus, though not a half-hearted one -- the company allows one to write anywhere in the Sense user interface, supporting the stylus input method with the backing of software.

The pen paradox is that, for all the contention that has been fostered between multitouch and styli, the two can shine when used in tandem, assuming the user interface has been created with both in mind. This was a key attribute of Microsoft's aborted Courier project, although Microsoft Research has also demonstrated the combination on other devices. Demo videos show that multitouch and pen together can provide more flexibility than using either alone, although some of the combinations are far more sophisticated and perhaps more abstract than simple gestures such as swiping and pinch-to-zoom. They tend to work better on mid-sized to large screens, ranging from tablets and PCs to Surface-like displays.

Perhaps Microsoft will put that R&D to work in the next version of Windows. For that operating system, the company must create an overhaul of its user interface anyway if it is to go toe-to-toe with iOS and Android as a viable tablet experience. As an add-on to today's finger-focused touchscreens, however, the stylus continues to face pointed challenges as it overcomes its stigma. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but it will soon be tested on its ability to cut through a field of otherwise undifferentiated tablets.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.