Michael Gartenberg: Samsung rethinks the pen

Styluses have never really caught on. But the Samsung Note shows that having a pen as one optional interface might be a good idea.

When it comes to computer interfaces, you would think that HAL should have killed anyone's desire to talk to a computer.

Remember how the computer HAL locked David Bowman out of the spaceship Discovery in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey? After that, the idea of computers that could speak to us lost some its appeal.

No one has ever managed to make a pen-based system seem homicidal. And Capt. James Kirk may have actually made styluses seem sexy as he signed a digital clipboard onboard the starship Enterprise in episode after episode of Star Trek. Nonetheless, we always seem to crave the immediacy and intimacy of using voice commands to tell a computer what to do. Styluses have seemed too clunky. As Steve Jobs famously said, "Who wants a stylus? You have to get 'em and put 'em away, and you lose 'em. Yuck. Nobody wants a stylus."

The case for the pen has been further damaged by some notoriously poor handwriting recognition. In fact, that aspect of the Apple Newton was so poorly executed that it was lampooned in the comic strip "Doonesbury."

Naturally, then, many of us were bowled over by Siri in the iPhone 4S. A talking computer can seem friendly and companion-like in a way that a pen never can.

But what if we stopped looking at voice and pen input as an either/or proposition? Might there not be a place for a stylus on our touch-sensitive devices? Isn't it true that you can do some things with a pen that are much too cumbersome with any other input method?

I've been thinking this way because I have been trying out Samsung's new Galaxy Note device. As the name "Note" implies, one of the key features of the device is a pen. It's not just any pen. Designed in conjunction with digital pen experts Wacom, the S Pen, as it's called, needs no battery and uses technology that keeps it from being distracted if your palm rests on the screen. The fact that the pen is pressure-sensitive means that the digital ink flows smoothly and effortlessly.

What I really like about the S Pen, though, is that Samsung has integrated the input device with a set of applications. You can, of course, write notes with the pen, and Samsung's marketers point out that many consumers who carry around multiple smart devices also carry around a notepad for writing down ideas. It's easier than typing on a tiny keyboard. You can also sketch with the S Pen, and you can integrate your drawings and your notes with other applications. For example, you can write things in your own hand on photos, add hand-drawn arrows ("This is our room!") and do things like draw a rough map that you might otherwise grab a cocktail napkin for.

The S Pen, then, serves a useful purpose without being the focal point for operating and using the device. Sure, there's handwriting recognition in there somewhere, but that's not where the value of the pen is; it's the ability to jot notes and make sketches with something slightly more optimized for those tasks than the tips of human fingers.

A stylus like the S Pen might not be what everyone wants. Some people are fine relying on their fingers to navigate their touch devices. But options are a good thing to have, and I think a significant number of people will find using the S Pen to be a pleasant experience. After all, when it comes to taking notes, sketching diagrams or just plain doodling on paper, most of us are much more comfortable using a pen, pencil or crayon -- we're well past the age of finger-painting.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

It’s time to break the ChatGPT habit
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