I recently wrote an article on Ghacks titled “Is Samsung Giving up on the S-Pen?”, which argued that Samsung is shying away from releasing many new devices that feature the famous “S-Pen” stylus associated with it’s “Galaxy Note” brand.
The argument was that Samsung did not find mainstream traction for the S-Pen, that it hasn’t released a new S-Pen equipped Note tablet since 2014, and that it’s stylish new ‘Edge’ large screen phablets left the stylus behind. Coincidentally, however, shortly after that article was published, there were signs that Microsoft is undertaking a campaign to promote digital pens (specifically, it’s ‘Surface Pen’) as the ultimate tool for note taking and innovation.
This article aims to describe Microsoft’s efforts to promote digital pens in general, and to ponder the question: who’s right? Are digital pens here to stay, now that touchscreens are everywhere?
Are digital pens here to stay?
1. Microsoft is actively linking note taking, innovation, and digital pens
I recently received an email from Microsoft promoting a free downloadable ebook they issued titled "The innovator's guide to Note taking". Being an avid note taker AND generally a sucker for downloadable guides, I quickly downloaded it, my interest piqued by the combination of “innovation” and “note taking”. You can download it for yourself here or here in exchange for registering with a valid email.
The guide was a highly polished affair which at first glance didn't seem like it was overtly selling anything. The gist of the argument in the guide went something like the following (Note: this is a very quick and dirty summary; and I am skipping a lot of info, especially examples and studies used in justification of these ideas).
- Pen-and-paper style scribbles and notes have considerable value in relation to the process of thinking and innovation.
- Conversely, typed notes are of LESS value and less likely to have traction inside our brains.
- In the information age, we need to find a way to store, access, share, and organize notes digitally.
- And, of course, all notes must live centrally in the cloud.
- Therefore; “digital note taking with a smart pen or stylus marries the best of both worlds, igniting creativity while leveraging the benefits of modern technology”. (A direct quote, but the emphasis is mine).
- Typewritten notes are good for documentation, but lack the active conceptualization of pen and paper notes.
- The very act of using a smart pen or stylus makes note taking a “right brain”, creative activity.
- Doodling is an integral part of note taking which increases retention and active conceptualization of info. Even if unrelated to the content of the notes, doodling is good, and not merely a frivolous activity.
- It goes on to give advice on note taking techniques: (1) simplify/abbreviate, (2) use your own words rather than copying verbatim, (3) engage in follow-up note taking after the meeting and (4) if you are inclined to visualize (doodling etc.)… go for it.
- Interestingly, the guide presents a side-by-side comparison between a “Digital Pen” (the kind you use on a touchscreen, like Microsoft’s ‘Surface Pen’) vs. a “Smart pen” (the kind that actually writes on special paper AND is uploadable to a PC, like the ‘LifeScribe 3’). It mentions these products by name, and although LiveScribe 3 is developed by Livescribe Inc, it has been recently integrated with Microsoft’s ‘OneNote’ note taking app.
- The ebook ends by mentioning some applications of digital note taking in various industries: Healthcare, Construction, Education, Law Enforcement, and Sales.
2. Microsoft just created a video promoting the ‘Surface Pen’
A few days later, I received another email from Microsoft with the subject line “Amazing Ways a Pen Can Change Your Life”. This was a straightforward promotion of the Surface Pen – “The digital pen you’ve been waiting for” – and linked to a promotional video on YouTube, which you can view below.
Discussion: the future of digital pens
It would seem, in the outset, that Microsoft is jumping into the digital pen bandwagon at the very same time that Samsung has cooled off on the concept. Apple, of course, is also jumping in with the Apple pencil for the iPad Pro.
Let me state up front that I am a huge fan of Samsung’s S-Pen and Note series, and use it daily. If we assume that everyone involved is right, we get the following set of arguments:
- Samsung has discovered that although the S-Pen has a coterie of core followers, it has not caught on in the mainstream. It seems that Samsung is currently very busy attempting to go after the mainstream.
- Microsoft has found that an optional ‘Surface Pen’ that can be purchased separately and added to it’s Surface line of tablets/laptops has a natural appeal to enough users that it decided to actively promote it, and has been trying to associate it with note taking and innovation. On some devices, the surface Pen is included with the purchase.
- Apple came to the conclusion that a digital pen (the Apple Pencil) is a perfect logical companion to it's large-sized iPad Pro, useful for that creative user that will find the extra large screen perfect for creating art or technical drawings etc. This despite Steve Jobs’ famous assertion that the fingers are the natural stylus (or whatever).
As an artistically inclined techie, I will say that I am always in the market for a digital pen and a hi-resolution screen. I may or may not be in the minority, but content creation is the mainstay of the information age, and a digital pen is extremely useful for that purpose. Microsoft thinks it can be useful for a wide range of applications: for teachers, composers, doctors, etc., as seen in the video above.
Suffice it to say there will always be a market for digital pens, and I for one have been considering switching from the Note to the Surface for some time. The real question is: in the future, will the market for digital pens be shrinking, or will it be growing. Microsoft seems to think the answer is the latter. I hope they are right.