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How Likely Is an Apple Pen?

Steve Jobs once said, in reference to the iPad, “If you see a stylus, they blew it.” Some have cited that quote to dismiss rumors that Apple is working on a stylus for the iPad.

Many of those commentators also missed the fact that Jobs also said, “In multitasking, if you see a task manager… they blew it,” even as he was announcing iOS 4 with a task manager. And then there are the other things that Jobs railed against — perhaps as misdirection — before Apple released just such a technology, including video on iPods, ebooks, and iTunes for Windows. But if you’re a TidBITS regular, you know that I’m just beating a dead horse in front of the choir.

While we at TidBITS don’t pay much attention to rumors, this one stands out for three reasons: Apple has the necessary technology, there is a business advantage in offering a stylus, and there are compelling benefits to Apple customers.

Let’s look at each of these. For the moment, I’ll assume that it will be called “Apple Pen,” which seems to fit Apple’s current naming conventions.

Where There’s Ink, There’s a Pen — Unlike many Apple rumors, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that Apple is investigating styluses.

Apple filed 11 stylus patent applications in 2014 alone: 10 through early December and one more just before the end of the year.

Apple filing a patent isn’t necessarily evidence that the technology will ever see the light of day. Business Insider documents some of Apple’s wilder patents, including virtual Mac keyboards, a 3D iPhone interface, a smart bicycle, touch-sensitive bezels, and even “shake to print.”

Also, bear in mind that every major tech company either files or buys patents for as many technologies as it possibly can. This is mostly for legal reasons, both to make it more difficult for competitors to develop new products and to defend against patent litigation. Patent trolls — companies that hold and defend patents but make nothing (but trouble) — have sparked a patent arms race.

But it’s interesting that Apple has such a voluminous collection of stylus patents, dating back well before 2014. The company has long been interested in the technology, though no one outside Apple knows if it will ever leave the lab again.

Again? Yes, in case you’ve forgotten, Apple has been in the stylus game longer than almost any other tech company, with a little device called the Newton that debuted in 1993 (for the history of that influential failure, see Michael Cohen’s “Newton: The Greatest Flop of All Time,” 9 August 2013).

While the early Newton’s handwriting recognition was the butt of many jokes (“Eat up Martha,” “egg freckles”), it improved rapidly, though not quickly enough to salvage its reputation.

But that refined technology made its way into Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar, in the form of Inkwell, later rebranded as Ink. It still exists to this day in 10.10 Yosemite, although the preference pane is hidden unless a supported device is connected. Rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

The bottom line is that if Apple wanted to release some sort of digital stylus, it has all the tools and resources to do so.

Finally, we have the source of the latest rumor: Ming-Chi Kuo of KGI Securities. Kuo has a sterling reputation for his Apple predictions, thanks to his sources within Asian suppliers. His previous predictions included larger iPhones, the gold iPhone 5s, and the iPhone 5c replacing the iPhone 5.

Despite some accurate insights, Kuo is only about as accurate as a coin flip, according to an analysis of his 2013 predictions by TUAW. His most recent miss was claiming that the Apple Watch would arrive in March 2015 (he was a month too soon, see “Big iPhones Mean a Big Q1 2015 for Apple; Apple Watch Date Revealed,” 27 January 2015).

It’s also important to note that Kuo’s best reports include citations of his Asian supplier sources, something that wasn’t included with his stylus prediction.

Going beyond Kuo’s somewhat overstated record, I think the best evidence of an Apple Pen is the solid business case for it.

The Business Case — When the Apple Watch debuts in April 2015, Apple will be offering devices with screen sizes from 1.5 inches up to 27 inches. If you count the Apple TV, you can have an Apple device with any size screen you can buy.

Where does Apple go from here? Outside of an iDoor or an Apple Car, the only apparent way to expand is horizontally, into accessories. The Apple Watch is a clue, as it will initially be an iPhone accessory. Another clue is in Apple’s purchase of headphone designer Beats Electronics (“Apple Buys Beats for $3 Billion,” 28 May 2014).

Apple aficionados have a certain affection for writing implements. Myke Hurley, a popular Apple podcaster, even has a show dedicated to them: The Pen Addict. Many prominent figures in the Apple community are in love with the Field Notes brand of pocket notebooks, including Daring Fireball’s John Gruber and The Loop’s Jim Dalrymple.

A well-designed pen is as much a work of industrial art as any existing Apple product, and a pen can be just as much of a fashion statement as a watch. Of course, for someone to want to carry a stylus all the time, it would help to do double duty as a normal pen that could write on paper.

See where I’m going with this? I bet Jony Ive would jump at the chance to design a pen again — he has already designed two. And I bet Apple retail chief Angela Ahrendts would love to sell an Apple Pen. By all reports, she’s gearing the Apple Store up to be a chain that sells small, high-end products like watches — a perfect niche for a high-end writing implement.

Just imagine the upsell opportunities! Like a watch, a pen can be developed from a variety of materials. Apple could offer the Apple Pen in aluminum, stainless steel, or gold, just like the Apple Watch. Since Apple went out of its way to develop a new gold alloy, you had better believe it will find new uses for it.

Plus, styluses are already a proven product category. Apple even sells a few already, including the FiftyThree Pencil and the Livescribe 3 Smartpen Pro Edition. The Pencil has been so well-received that FiftyThree is betting the company on it.

These products share a key disadvantage: they each work in only a single app. Less-sophisticated, more universal styluses often have squishy tips designed to work with capacitive touchscreens. These squishy tips can be frustrating to use, like trying to draw with an eraser. Some styluses have firm tips, like the Studio Neat Cosmonaut, and are reportedly easier to use, but still suffer from other issues.

Here we have a perfect formula for an Apple product: a proven market category filled with flawed products. Apple is known as an innovator, but the company is better described as a renovator. Apple didn’t invent the personal computer, MP3 player, smartphone, tablet, or smartwatch, it made them better. It’s sort of like the old BASF ad: “Here at Apple, we don’t invent the gizmos you buy. We make the gizmos you buy better.”

Apple has even more impetus to introduce an Apple Pen: slowing iPad sales. Rumors of an Apple Pen have often been presented alongside rumors of a larger iPad Pro. While a full analysis of an iPad Pro would require another article, it makes sense. Check out the latest iPad ad.

What do we see? Musicians, woodworkers, mechanics, designers, photographers, and other professionals. Apple has been aiming the iPad at the professional market for a few years now. Plus, Tim Cook keeps talking about the iPad’s penetration into Fortune 500 companies in Apple’s quarterly earnings calls.

I’m certain that an iPad Pro would sell. I still hear from people who have fallen for my Mavericks/iPad mashup joke for April Fools Day last year (see “Install and Run OS X 10.9 Mavericks on the iPad Air,” 1 April 2014). It even fooled a couple of pundits. That just shows how hungry people are for a more functional iPad.

A larger screen “canvas” makes more sense in light of a stylus — giving artists, designers, and writers more room to work. While I doubt that Apple is quaking in fear of the Microsoft Surface tablet, it has proven popular with a market Apple covets: artists. When Mike “Gabe” Krahulik of Penny Arcade extolled the virtues of the Surface Pro’s pressure-sensitive stylus for artists, that had to have stung some higher-ups at Apple.

The Apple Pen would likely be a niche device, so expect to pay a premium. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it cost at least $100. Luxurious gold models could retail for more (I could see these taking off with executives who favor the iPad).

For professionals looking for accurate input on their iPads, the premium would be worth it, as Apple could offer benefits no other vendor can.

What We Could Expect from an Apple Pen — Beyond possibly being among the best ink-on-paper writing implements anyone has ever used, the main advantage Apple could offer with the Apple Pen would be functionality throughout iOS, with any app. It could offer the precision and pressure-sensitivity of FiftyThree’s Pencil without being tied to a single app.

Naturally, the Apple Pen would connect via Bluetooth 4.0, but how would you charge it? Perhaps via a Lightning connector, or it could use a version of the Apple Watch’s inductive charging, sharing a similar adapter. Apple might even include a handsome desk charger, reminiscent of traditional pen holders.

I’d like to see an Apple Pen come with a removable, replaceable tip, which would create an accessory market around the pen. Apple and its partners could offer tips for fine work, broad strokes, and even brushes. Calligraphy tips would be a must, given that Steve Jobs studied calligraphy like a monk, with a monk.

Speaking of calligraphy, I think it’s a given that the Apple Pen would offer handwriting recognition in iOS. But to be truly unique, it needs more than that; it wouldn’t be an Apple product without an innovation that sets it apart.

The most obvious way Apple could innovate here is to include a form of the Apple Watch’s Taptic Engine to provide haptic feedback. The Taptic Engine could hypothetically emulate the feel of pen on paper or a brush smearing through paint on a canvas. If Apple could pull that off, the Apple Pen would be irresistible to artists.

Another possibility I pondered was Apple including a Bluetooth microphone in the Apple Pen to act as a remote control for Siri. But I think this would risk taking some of the air out of the Apple Watch. While Apple isn’t afraid to cannibalize its products, I doubt it wants to do so to a brand-new one.

How would you carry the Apple Pen? The traditional solution is a slot in the device to hold a stylus. I can’t see Jony Ive doing this; for one thing, it would bulk up the incredibly thin iPad. A magnetic attachment of some sort, like Apple’s Smart Cover, seems more likely. I can imagine a pen machined to provide a perfect fit with the iPad’s edges. But if it’s going to get the attention Apple would want, you’d need to put it in your pocket like you do any other pen.

What could Apple do to entice regular, non-professional users to pick up an Apple Pen and/or an iPad Pro? Amateur Apple analyst and infrequent podcaster Zac Cichy offered a couple of ideas.

The first is easier input for Asian languages, which would surely be a big hit in the coveted Chinese market. Especially since much of written Chinese (and a good portion of Japanese) consists of thousands of logograms, with each representing a single word or concept. If an Apple Pen could ease the input of these characters, that could be a major accessibility win for billions of people.

The second one is staring us all right in the face: communicating via sketches. Sketch is one of Apple’s much-touted features of Apple Watch, and will enable you to communicate with friends and loved ones via simple, animated drawings. I think it’s a safe bet that this feature will spread to Apple’s other platforms, and what better way to do so than with a pen?

Fashionable, artistic, practical, and profitable. That’s Apple in a nutshell. That’s why I think we’ll see an Apple Pen one day.

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