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How Android Should Revive Pen Input on Mobile Devices

By Ryan Whitwam

Samsung's Galaxy Note is about to launch in the US, and it brings with it an old friend: the stylus.

It was just over five years ago that Steve Jobs got up on stage at Moscone Center and announced the iPhone. Little did we know he was also announcing the death of the stylus and resistive screen input. The entire mobile market moved to capacitive touch, and finger-friendly UIs. If you ask us, this was for the best, but there is definitely an increasingly vocal niche of users that yearn for pen-based input.

Digitizers on Android devices have evolved to the point that capacitive touch and some of the features expected from a stylus can coexist. Some past attempts at adding pen-input to Android have failed, but there is high excitement for the soon-to-be-released AT&T Samsung Galaxy Note and its S Pen. Let’s look at pen input on Android and see what it’s going to take for it to work.

A Flyer Failure

HTC had some good ideas with the HTC Flyer, a 7-inch Android tablet that was first released about a year ago. HTC’s first real tablet was running Android 2.3 with HTC Sense. The Flyer had some things going for it, but for a variety of reasons (not all of them related to its ham-handed implementation of stylus input) the device failed to turn many heads.

The Flyer’s major digitizer sin was that it used an active digitizer pen, called the HTC Scribe. Being an active digitizer meant that it required its own power source, in this case a AAAA (yes, quadruple A) battery. Light as this cell is, it still made the pen feel odd in the hand. It was also too big to realistically be stored in the device body, as well.

As implemented by HTC, the Scribe was, quite frankly, not very useful. Confusingly, it did not register capacitive input at all. The Scribe only worked in a handful of HTC-designed pen apps; it could not be used within the Android UI. There was a pen-sensitive spot on the bezel that would bring up your Scribe-compatible apps, and let you choose brushes and pens when you were writing. The Scribe could also be used to take screenshots by tapping the screen.

Granted, the included notes app was great if you wanted to jot down some quick thoughts, but that is really all the Scribe was good for seeing as it could not be used to actually operate the device. There was also no handwriting recognition in the notes app. For something with such limited uses, you might expect the Scribe to be an extra that you would just leave rattling around in the box. Well, the Scribe was not even included with most SKUs of the product. It was a $79 accessory.

For a device with limited appeal in the first place, the Flyer was not able to convince many users to adopt pen-based input on Android. And $79 for a clunky, barely useful stylus? No sale.

The Galaxy Note and S Pen

Samsung is forging ahead with its Galaxy Note, a 5.3-inch phone-tablet hybrid, and it comes with a built-in stylus called the S Pen. Samsung seems to have watched the Flyer crash and burn, because they’ve corrected most of HTC’s mistakes. Right from the start, the S Pen makes more sense than the Scribe. It’s not an active digitizer, so it does not need a bulky battery. It also slots into the bottom of the phone, meaning you will always have it with you. Don’t underestimate the importance of that.

Unlike the Scribe and the Flyer, the S Pen can be used to operate anything on the phone, not just the specially designed pen apps. You can swipe, open apps, and scroll with the S Pen. It will not work with the capacitive buttons on the Note, but Samsung thought of that. A system of gestures can be used to execute common system actions like back and home. The S Pen also recognizes 256 levels of pressure, so it operates well in drawing apps.

Because the S Pen works in any area of the UI, it can be used for text input. Samsung has a handwriting recognition keyboard that reportedly works fairly well, but there is also Swype built in. One of our biggest issues with Swype is getting our fat, non-transparent fingers in the way all the time. The S Pen is a perfect way to Swype with maximum efficiency.

Samsung pushed out an API for the S Pen shortly after the Note shipped, and the company even maintains a mini app store on the device for S Pen-compatible apps. Device specific APIs are usually doomed to failure, though. So how can Samsung bring the stylus back? More devices.

The stylus rises again?

For pen input to make it in today’s mobile market, it needs to do several things. First, the input device needs to be built into the device, and be lightweight. The software needs to take full advantage of the pen input, both with custom apps, and with regular screen interactions. A device with pen input also needs to have killer handwriting recognition; less than 95% accuracy is going to be too annoying to use day-to-day. Lastly, it needs to be on a lot of devices.

If you believe some statements made by a Samsung mobile marketing manager, the S Pen is not going to be limited to one device. Samsung’s Ryan Biden recently said that, “I think a pen interface continues to make a lot of sense across a number of screen sizes, like the larger is more obvious of those.” If that doesn’t mean the S Pen is coming to the Galaxy Tab line, we’d be shocked.

It just makes sense. The smaller a screen is, the harder it is to write on it comfortably. A tablet could be the ideal form factor for handwriting recognition, as well as drawing. The precision offered by a pen input system makes the most sense there.

Assuming that Samsung rolls the S Pen out across its entire range of high-end devices, that open API might actually gain some traction. Samsung is already the de facto leader in Android devices, so it has some sway on developers. Pen input is still something that a lot of people want, but no one wants to go back to a resistive screen, or pay extra for a nearly-useless stylus.

If Samsung can push the S Pen forward, and get the kinks worked out, it will have a legitimately useful differentiator in the smartphone wars. The implementation is already better than anything else on Android, and the company is in a position to capitalize with upcoming tablets and phones like the Galaxy S III.