June 02, 2010

Brief thoughts (and a question) on tablets & styluses

When did my finger start resembling a giant breadstick? More on that in a moment.

Of tablet computers Steve Jobs recently said, “If you see a stylus, they blew it.”

I think he’s right, insofar as he’s talking about requiring the use of a stylus. There’s a big difference, however, between requiring something and enabling it as an option.

Regarding the former, ten years ago I bought and almost immediately returned a big Kyocera-Palm frankenphone. I loved the promise of a phone/pocket computer, but having to pop out a stylus to perform even the simplest tasks was a deal breaker. In contrast, my simple Nokia offered just two soft keys and a rocker switch, but that simplicity led to an efficient UI. Forcing me to use a stylus forced me to ditch the phone.

When it comes to drawing and painting, however, using a finger really sucks for anything precise. Yes, a talented artist can do impressive work, but there’s a reason people don’t use their fingers to draw and write on paper. Have you tried drawing anything with any precision on an iPad? (Don’t just launch an app and screw around; try to draw something very specific.) Maybe it’s just me, but suddenly my fingertip looks enormous, blotting out the area I’m trying to mark. I find myself tipping my whole hand up and down, trying to see what’s underneath my finger.

I don’t know what can be done with the I/O on iPads and future tablets, but I really hope that a vendor can deliver a pressure-sensitive stylus. I think it would be a watershed moment for sketching on the go.

Question: Would you be willing to pay for such a thing? And if so, how much?

PS–Yesterday Steve acknowledged the imprecision of a finger: “The minute you throw a stylus out, you have the [reduced] precision of a finger, you can’t use a PC OS.”

PPS–Somehow I neglected to mention an insight gained talking with artists at Pixar and elsewhere: they find drawing and painting on an iPad interesting, but in a sort of abstract, intellectual way–until you show them the ability to smudge pixels with a finger. That’s when they start lighting up. Pretending that one’s finger is a pencil isn’t that interesting, but using one’s finger as a finger *feels* deeply correct. There’s some kind of lower-brain connection that brings out a lot of smiles.

Posted by John Nack at 3:12 PM on June 02, 2010
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