It’s a question circulating the Web: Will Apple’s next product be a stylus, a tool that iconic Apple co-founder Steve Jobs said that nobody wanted? As Fortune reports, Apple recently filed its 10th stylus-related patent of the year. That brings its tally of patents on the topic to a total of 32, conveniently compiled by Patently Apple.
While the technology outlined in a decent number of Apple’s patents is unlikely to ever be used in a consumer product, a product in relation to which the company has filed more than 30 patents — for a total of 10 this year — seems like a different story.
Jobs famously said that nobody wanted a stylus
Fortune’s Philip Elmer-DeWitt writes that it’s impossible to discuss Apple’s patents for the rumored smart pen — or iPen, as it’s been unavoidably named — without referring to Jobs’s famous declarations on the topic of styluses. The occasion for one of those quotes, according to Business Insider, was when Jobs told biographer Walter Isaacson about the 50th birthday party of one of the people developing a Microsoft tablet. It was a party he attended, reluctantly, with his wife.
When this Microsoft employee told Jobs about the tablet and its software, which would use a stylus, Jobs formed the opinion that “he was doing the device all wrong. It had a stylus. As soon as you have a stylus, you’re dead,” Business Insider writes. Jobs then went home and said, “Fuck this, let’s show him what a tablet can really be.” He went in to Apple the next day and asked for a multitouch tablet with no keyboard and no stylus. That product became the iPhone, and later the iPad.
At Macworld in 2007, where Jobs first introduced the original iPhone, he made fun of the stylus again, giving his word on the matter. He asked the audience, rhetorically, how one would communicate with the iPhone. He ruled out carrying around a mouse or using a stylus. “Who wants a stylus? You have to get ‘em, put ‘em away, you lose ‘em, yuck. Nobody wants a stylus.”
At Apple’s iOS 4 event in 2010, Jobs made a comment about how mobile operating systems didn’t require users to close apps when multitasking, comparing task managers on smartphones to — you guessed it — styluses on tablets. “It’s like we said on the iPad, if you see a stylus, they blew it,” he said at the event, according to Engadget. “In multitasking, if you see a task manager … they blew it. Users shouldn’t ever have to think about it.”
But Jobs’s criticism was more about modes of user input than the stylus itself
Jobs decided on the touchscreen for the iPhone and the iPad, and left a stylus out of the picture. But Fortune notes that what’s often left out of conversations that cite Jobs’s anti-stylus quotes is the context of his comments at Macworld in 2007.
Jobs wasn’t saying that no one would ever want a stylus — just that people wouldn’t want it on a smartphone. It seems that Jobs was railing more against inconvenient and overwrought methods of user input than against the actual form of the stylus itself.
In the same way that Jobs said users shouldn’t have to think about closing applications when they’re finished with them, Jobs didn’t think that users should have to think about how to interact with a device as immediate and intuitive as a multitouch iPhone, or even the later extension of that product, the iPad. Fingers were a better tool for interacting with the iPhone, and Jobs didn’t believe that users would want to rely on a stylus as the primary mode of input for a device that they could just as easily carry in their pockets and control with a touchscreen.
Apple has excelled by redefining emerging categories with innovations in the way hardware and software design coalesce. In the 1980s, Apple made the computer mouse mainstream. The mouse, combined with a graphic user interface, made personal computers possible. In the early 2000s, Apple’s next user input innovation was the iPod’s clickwheel, which gave users control over the music player’s simple software. In 2007, the iPhone’s touchscreen emerged, leaps and bounds ahead of any others that consumers had experienced.
Tech Cheat Sheet reported in September that the Apple Watch’s pressure-sensitive touchscreen and the Force Touch gesture it enables could represent the next major step in that line of user input innovations. The combination will enable Apple to pack more functionality into smaller screens, as well as replace obtrusive user interfaces with context-specific press menus on screens large and small. A smarter stylus could be next, theoretically giving users a better way to interact with a device and enabling an entire array of new possibilities in user interfaces and features.
Could a stylus be an appropriate mode of input for a future Apple product?
Though Amazon seems to have a modest market for “dumb” styluses — essentially just a plastic stick — the iterations of styluses currently on the market are nothing special. Apple’s patents don’t seem to reveal anything very complex, but as Business Insider notes, the concept itself is simple: A stylus is just an object designed to point at a screen. But Apple’s collection of 32 stylus-related patents seems evidence that Apple has a team of engineers working to build a better stylus. Patently Apple’s Jack Purcher reports that Apple’s smart stylus, or iPen, is one of the company’s longest-running products.
Fortune explains that while Apple Pay emerged 52 months after after its first public filing, and the Apple Watch is expected to ship less than 30 months after it first surfaced, Apple began filing stylus patents six or seven years ago, shortly after the original iPhone shipped.
Purcher and others expect that if Apple does turn its reinvented stylus into an actual product, it’s most likely to roll out with the rumored iPad Pro, a large tablet intended for design and engineering professionals, and expected to be unveiled in the first half of 2015. For an iPad intended to help Apple win customers in enterprise, the stylus could represent another selling point, one that enables users to complete more precise tasks or ease the repetitiveness of things like data entry.
As Fortune reports, 10 patents in a year is too many to ignore. It seems that it’s just a matter of time before Apple introduces its reinterpretation of the stylus for the future. We can just hope that the hardware and the software cooperate to create a new experience that would make Jobs proud.
More from Tech Cheat Sheet:
- Why the Apple Watch’s Screen Is Its Most Overlooked Feature
- How Vital Are Steve Jobs’s Inventions to Tim Cook’s Apple?
- 5 Apple Products to Expect in 2015
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