With Pencil, Apple goes back to an old technology

Apple Pencil has antecedents going back generations

In technology, as in many other aspects of life, it’s all about the timing.

Steve Jobs in 2007 at the Apple iPhone launch: “Who wants a stylus? You have to get em', put em' away. You lose them. Yuck.”

Apple yesterday: Here’s the Apple Pencil.

Cue lots of suggestions that Jobs might be revolving in his grave. I really doubt he would. The Pencil announcement is just a recognition that technology matures in odd ways and that sometimes you have to go back to get to the future.

Pen-based computers have a long (and mostly ignominious) history going back to the 1950s. Fast-forward to circa 1990 when they were a niche within a niche used mostly for data collection with vertical industry apps, devices built in robust fashion by companies like Grid Systems. Users counted warehouse inventory items, took sales orders, updated hospital patient records and the like.

There was always a sense that pen computers could be a good match for graphical user interfaces, however, and in 1991, a very hot startup called GO released PenPoint, a multithreaded, multitasking operating system that attracted some system and software support.

But Bill Gates, for it is he, also had an idea that pen computing could go mainstream and decided to create a version of Windows with software extensions for computers that had a stylus. The influence of GO on Gates’s decision and the software subsequently built still gets cited by critics of Microsoft that say the company will often piggyback (and worse) on rivals’ ideas.

When Microsoft released Windows for Pen Computing in 1992, conventional wisdom had it that pen computers would enter the mainstream, given Microsoft’s enormous sway at the time. As is frequently the case with conventional wisdom, the perception failed to become reality and pen computers failed to sell.

Here was the rub: keyboards might be archaic in some ways but they work for getting text on screens; handwriting recognition wasn’t good enough and there weren’t enough reasons to buy. Pens had some successes, however. They were and are widely used by graphics artists, usually with a digitiser tablet, for example, and the launch of Palm Computing’s Pilot device in 1996 put them in millions of pockets and saw other small device makers use pens too, for instance on early smartphones and even wristwatches.

But when Apple launched the iPhone to enormous success it seemed that the touchscreen was the way forward for mobile devices and mantra and new conventional wisdom was that for pointing at least, the finger is the best device. (It’s also free and it comes built in to users.)

Pens can be useful though for precision activities and in some ergonomic conditions, just as keyboards are still the best answer for writing sizeable documents or messages – it’s horses for courses.

With Pencil, once again this is Apple taking a niche technology and hoping to magic into a powerful force. And perhaps it will be successful because, as we have seen, technological change might not be characterised by linear progress - but it is ceaseless.