Only Apple Can Make the Perfect Stylus It Once Spurned
It’s just a stylus. You’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise, though. Watching that gorgeous video, listening to Jony Ive tell you in reverent terms how Apple made a pen that feels like every other pen but is nothing like any other pen, you might believe the Apple Pencil is some radical new technology. But it’s just a stylus.
These are all things I told myself when I first picked up the perfectly round, perfectly white device and began to scribble on a blank page in the Notes app, filling the 12.9-inch screen of the new iPad Pro. It’s just a stylus. It’s just a stylus. I wrote my name, because that’s what I always do when I first test a stylus (I am deeply unimaginative). I drew a person, and a little house, and switched to a different color and pen type and began shading with the tip’s broad side.
That’s when I noticed the difference between the Pencil and just a stylus: It felt great. Perfect. Better than any stylus I’ve ever used by a wide margin. Not because the thing itself is so terrific—I like holding FiftyThree’s Pencil better, and there are lots of good styli out there—but because it’s the first time I’ve ever written on a screen and actually felt like I was writing on the screen. There was almost zero latency, meaning the ink appeared to flow out of the Pencil and not trail half an inch behind. With the tiniest added pressure, the line became the tiniest bit thicker. I tapped on the No. 2 pencil mode, and it wrote and shaded just like all the pencils I used to sharpen with that wall-mounted thing you had to crank.
So what gives? How did Apple make a stylus that doesn’t feel like every other stylus? The answer is one of the oldest in the book, the line we’ve used to explain Apple’s success for a decade. The products change, but the upshot doesn’t: Apple can make it better because it controls the hardware and the software.
Making a great stylus begins with the device itself, but it doesn’t end there. The display on the device you’re writing on matters a great deal; try writing on a piece of paper and then on a piece of sandpaper. In fact, it’s the first thing Jony Ive discusses in that video. “This began,” he says, “by re-engineering the touch subsystem of the display to measure both finger and stylus input on the same plane with optimal accuracy.” What that means, practically speaking, is the screen becomes more responsive when you start using the Pencil. Because the tip is so fine, tiny changes in position become more pronounced, so the display updates its position more often than it does for your comparatively stubby finger. There are sensors in both display and stylus to measure position and pressure, and the software in the device—how it responds to pen input, palm rejection, pressure, and so many other things—weaves it all together. That’s how you solve latency, and you can’t do it without both pieces.
The best styli always have come from companies with something like complete control over the experience. Microsoft’s Surface Pen, which also is excellent, is the result of an entire team’s work—including some of the founders of Surface. When I visited the team’s lab in Redmond in May, the people behind Pen showed me prototypes of improvements for every part of the experience. A Surface with overclocked software to kill latency; a screen with software to make it feel less like glass and more like paper.
Over the last decade, though, Apple’s simply proven itself better than anyone else when it comes to combining hardware and software. The reason why is shrouded in mystery—the mythical design lab, or the sheer force of Steve Jobs’s will—but the proof is abundant.
Consider 3D Touch, that small but powerful new piece of the iPhone’s interface. To read about it, it sounds like right-clicking—in the run-up to Wednesday’s event, the big question was, how is this different from a long-press on Android? But it is different. The tiny bits of differing feedback when you press softly or harder, dynamically showing their edges so you know how to tap better next time; the language of tiny buzzes that your fingers will learn as you use the iPhone. 3D Touch is only beginning with the new iPhones because it’s not just a right-click; it doesn’t work without the haptic feedback, because otherwise how would you know where and how hard to press? Apple wants these things to feel “inevitable,” to borrow Alan Dye’s favorite word. You can’t do that without the hardware.
Or, take the Apple TV, another of the big announcements in this week’s keynote. As part of the update, Apple redesigned its on-screen keyboard, moving the letters into two long rows to make them easier to access by swiping left and right on the remote’s new trackpad. As you hover over an icon, fiddling your finger on the trackpad (as you certainly will), the icon ripples along with you. And when you’re playing a game, anyone with an iOS device can jump in—everything seamlessly becomes a remote controller. It’s these small things that make these products feel natural and fun in a way a Roku or Chromecast will rarely equal.
These small things are also what enable Apple to take existing products, copy them fairly shamelessly—Oh, you built a tablet with a keyboard and a pen? You’re breaking some new ground there, Copernicus—and make them feel new again. While the Surface feels like the result of 10 teams that just happen to be in the same building, the Apple Pencil and iPad Pro feel like a complete thought. (That’s also, incidentally, how Apple keeps convincing you to spend more money. All the pieces just go together so seamlessly—of course you need this other device that’s just like your current device!) They don’t just work together, they’re made for each other. It’s cheesy, but it’s massively powerful.
There’s a dark side to this, of course. Apple’s constant granting of Most Favored Nation status only to itself means most of its “partners” get an intentionally shorthanded experience. Microsoft’s apps support the Apple Pencil, which is nice, but you can be damn sure the iPad Pro won’t support the Surface Pen in any powerful way. And yeah, Apple says, bring your Android Wear devices to the iPhone—they just can’t do much. Apple seems to see these other devices as gateways to its own, and hopes that hamstringing the experience on every device without a big fruit logo will eventually convince you to just stick around.
It’s disappointing that FiftyThree’s Pencil won’t get the same access to the iPad Pro’s awesome pen-enabling software as Apple’s Pencil. Only Apple’s stylus gets to be more than just a stylus. It’d be great if everything worked with everything, and if Apple’s inventiveness and polishing would improve the whole ecosystem. But what I saw again this week, for the umpteenth time, is that Apple does it better because Apple does everything. And that, as tends to happen, its stuff is worth waiting for.