Microsoft is betting that digital pens are here to stay

Samer Kurdi
Mar 29, 2016
Mobile Computing

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?

The Surface Pro 4 with Surface Pen (from the MS website)
The Surface Pro 4 with Surface Pen (from the MS website)

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.
Digital Pen and Smart Pen doodle (from the MS guide to modern note taking)
Digital Pen and Smart Pen doodle (from the MS guide to modern note taking)
  • 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.

Microsoft is betting that digital pens are here to stay
Article Name
Microsoft is betting that digital pens are here to stay
Microsoft is actively promoting it's 'Surface Pen' digital pen at the same time that Samsung seems to be cooling off on the S-Pen. This article sheds light at Microsoft's efforts to associate it's digital pen with note taking and innovation, and asks the question: are digital pens here to stay?
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  1. Pinal said on September 7, 2016 at 10:26 am

    Well.. happened to discuss this with one of my friend who is very much in this industry he did suggested that Digital pens market do have a good future. Its not just Microsoft but other companies are also investing in this, Source :

  2. Install Pentoo said on April 1, 2016 at 9:31 pm

    I give up: I’m completely lost about anything coming from Microsoft Corp.

  3. Jackal said on March 29, 2016 at 11:02 pm

    Well Apple have started blatantly (and badly) copying the Surface and it’s Pen, so there must be something in it.

  4. archie said on March 29, 2016 at 5:32 pm

    MS is not joining the pen bandwagon. They literally invented the tablet PC concept and have been investing -at a loss- for a decade and a half on the concept.
    They must be given credit for remarkable persistence on the matter.

    The tablet PC is one of the very few areas where I’m unconditionally on board with them. Working with, say, a HP TC1000 in 2003 was unreal and futuristic, even more so than having a smartphone with internet and fax in 1998n which branded you as a hopeless geek. I know for having unsuccessfully tried to market them in businesses and being looked at as a freak in hotels and bars, that it was much more risky and challenging a product back then than it is today.

    When Apple came up with the ipad, I shrugged, realizing how, once again, they were going to be successful with a dumb product where MS would fail with a smart one.

    This article makes me shrug yet again, albeit more discretely: no, Microsoft is not joining anything nor taking a new bet. That’s just laughable.

    I seem to recall having already commented here a couple of times, on the Tablet PC over the last years. Tablets were not born in 2010 and pen is not an evolution. The lack thereof is a regression.

  5. Tanooki2003 said on March 29, 2016 at 5:30 pm

    I prefer to stick with the classics. I just get a Fujitsu Lifebook with a Wacom stylus. Still the best kind of stylus you can get today. I really don’t care at all for the capacitive styli with the rubber end. Not accurate at all. I need a Wacom stylus for signing PDF documents and drawing electronic schematic diagrams by hand.

  6. Martin Brinkmann said on March 29, 2016 at 8:38 am

    Samer, I bought a Surface 4 Pro and one of the reasons for doing so was the pen. I was interested in it and how good it was.

    It is good, but there is still a noticeable delay which is bothering me a lot and the main reason why I stopped using it for the most part.

    Others say they don’t have that delay, and it can either be because of the lower end model I got, or because they don’t notice it as much as I do.

    I’d suggest you try it out if you get a chance before making a purchase.

    I think pens will stay, especially since Apple is also pushing the pen on the iPad Pro line.

    1. Brad Cappozzo said on June 7, 2016 at 12:06 pm

      the point is ” are all those traditionals pc programs thought in order to be used with a digitizer? the answer is NOT” Except for Evernote and a few crappy “apps” All the Windows 8/10 is a full pc experience and all the attemps in order to make their Os tablet friendly are simply laughable.

      From the other side, I can affirmatively say that Samsung is simply a nonsense company able to kill its own products with its policies.

      (A Note tablet heavy user)

    2. alfie69 said on April 2, 2016 at 1:31 am

      maybe this may help ( even though it says for 7, it also includes latest os, has step by step to fix all the annoying parts of ms interference with wacom pens

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