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Android Getting Native Active Pen Support in Ice Cream Sandwich



Among the many new features sneaking into Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich is built-in support for stylus input, specifically the kind needed for tablets with active pen digitizers.

Current Android devices with active pen input, such as the HTC Flyer and Samsung Galaxy Note, rely on custom software. HTC, for example, uses a system called Scribe for pen input, which would be opened to developers to make their own pen-aware apps. This new API in Ice Cream Sandwich, however, makes that custom stuff unnecessary (or perhaps this is that custom stuff incorporated into ICS).

Stylus input, button support, hover events

Android 4.0 includes full support for stylus input events, including tilt and distance axes, pressure, and related motion event properties. To help applications distinguish motion events from different sources, the platform adds distinct tool types for stylus, finger, mouse, and eraser. For improved input from multi-button pointing devices, the platform now provides distinct primary, secondary, and tertiary buttons, as well as back and forward buttons. Hover-enter and hover-exit events are also added, for improved navigation and accessibility. Developers can build on these new input features to add powerful interactions to their apps, such as precise drawing and gesturing, handwriting and shape recognition, improved mouse input, and others.

While identified as “stylus input” what’s clearly described is active pen input. Tilt, pressure, pen buttons, eraser, hover, these things are not possible with finger-substitute styluses. This requires active digitizers, such as Wacom and N-Trig, that can detect proximity and input from electronic pens. This is true pen functionality, not “sausage” support.

But before you get too excited, keep in mind, this API is a tool for developers to easily implement pen input in their own apps. It’s not like Windows tablets where pen input acts as a mouse substitute, so it works everywhere. Pen input on Android tablets has been specific to pen-type tasks, like writing notes. It doesn’t replace finger touch input. Basically, added software is still needed to take advantage of this pen support. It just makes it easier for developers to build that software. Advanced features, such as handwriting recognition, are still not baked (or frozen) into Ice Cream Sandwich. And of course, active digitizer hardware is still required.

Also of interest is the mention of mouse support and navigation buttons, which indicate more functionality for tablets while desk-docked.

Via Reddit by way of Liliputing and my friends at



  1. Bigmouth

    10/21/2011 at 8:40 am

    This is a very smart move, imo. Android will make serious inroads among enterprise users if active pen input becomes standard.

  2. Willem Evenhuis

    10/21/2011 at 10:46 am

    Sounds like one big mess to me. I understand the idea of open source, but for pen and ink-to-text recognition I can not escape the thought needs a bit of control and a push to a reach a wide base of users. Only then will this technology improve. I’ll be very surprised if pen support in ICS goes anywhere. If it does, I hope the galaxy note gets a free update!

    • Willem Evenhuis

      11/11/2011 at 2:49 pm

      Changed my mind after purchasing the Samsung Note. inking works surprisingly well and there are settings in gingerbread to make the inking experience smoother and more accurate, thus providing room for an option for handwriting recognition. There is a letter recognition function in the virtual keyboard, but it only recognizing single letters. If a smartphone version of MyScript Notes would be available it would be a step in the right direction. The only three items I will still want to see is multilangual recogntion support, an option for a manual handwriting recognition library and a file format for sharing and editing ink files.

      Afew interesting¬†things I’ve noticed with the pen/stylus is that it seems like a kind of active digitizer. My active digitizer pen op my Lenovo X60 tablet (Wacom Pen) works on this device to ink. I can use the back side as an eraser!!! And the button also works to call up a new ink note!!! I think this is worth sharing for those having a wacom pen lying around and wanting a samsung galaxy note…

  3. Anonymous

    10/22/2011 at 8:05 am

    I honestly don’t care about built in ink-to-text recognition.
    It would be nice but no big deal.
    In this scenario I don’t need it to enter the odd url or whatnot because I can always just bring up a keyboard to do it.
    Otherwise it is already built into most apps where I’d want it – such as evernote.
    And the only reason I want it there is to enable search based on the text.

  4. Fabrizio

    11/14/2012 at 1:21 am

    Hi all, do you know if there is someone developing active pen based on RF interferometer (like cregle’s iPen for Ipad) on Android devices? It would be a really bang for all the android market.

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