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"If you see a stylus they blew it" – I’m with Steve Jobs



Xavier Lanier reported from the iPhone 4 OS launch at Apple headquarters that Steve Jobs answered a question about the possibility of a stylus for iPad with this little gem:

“If you see a stylus, they blew it”

Gotta love Steve J for his “super” quotes. Well sorry folks, but I’m with Steve on this one. For me the gem lies in the distinction between an active digitizer pen and a stylus.

You see, when Steve J thinks talks about stylus, he’s most likely talking about this (no offence Warner):


That’s right it’s a DIY stylus for a capacitive touch screen, like the one on the iPad.

When I think of a digital pen, I think of the active digitizer pen that did this:


As has been noted on these pages many times, using a stylus on a touch screen is awkward and limited at best. On the other hand, an active digitizer is a “powerful” tool that opens up “magical” possibilities.

For those who don’t know the difference (and true inkers know that this means the kind of people who will buy an iPad) here are a few pointers. Regular inkers, you probably already know this so feel free to skim it!

An Active digitizer:

  • Is proximity sensitive – that means that it also works when you hold it near the screen, as well as when you touch the screen
  • Is pressure sensitive – that means that It can tell how hard you press on the screen – great for digital sketching, drawing and painting
  • Is “amazing, truly wonderful, awesome and phenomenal” for note taking, handwriting input and mark-up
  • Is accurate and fast – by far the best tool for Tablet input, fast handwriting recognition, note taking, mark-up and content creation.

A resistive touch screen:

  • Requires you to touch the screen with something to work
  • Works with a finger or a fine point stylus
  • Is not pressure sensitive
  • Is not proximity sensitive
  • Is great for action inputs – like pressing big buttons (like virtual keyboard keys, slowly I might add)
  • Is ok for inking, but suffers from interference -from accidental inputs or touch

A capacitive touch screen:

  • Requires you to touch the screen
  • Requires a specialised blunt stylus like a crayon – See sock stylus above ;-)
  • Is not pressure sensitive
  • Is not proximity sensitive
  • Is great for action inputs – like pressing big buttons
  • Is awful for inking – suffers from the blunt tool effect plus interference from accidental touch

So, if you want to capture information unbound from a desk, standing up and walking around in the wide world on a slate – for example at an Apple press event – then you’ll need an active digitizer and not a sock stylus!

Tablet PCs with active digitizers can capture information in a way that all of those hundreds of Apple devotees at the iPhone OS launch event could not do on their iPads – and that is worth far more than 150,000 iPhone apps blown up big to me…

So Steve Jobs is right, if you see a stylus they blew it. If you see an active digitizer on the other hand, then write on!

– This article was handwritten on an active digitizer Tablet PC, one handed over breakfast using OneNote.



  1. John

    04/12/2010 at 2:07 pm

    I have used a Sony NX80 for many years and have recently switched to the iPod Touch. I have to say that I would like a stylus in addition to the touch screen. The stylus is much more precise. I find after 4 months of regular use I make many entry mistakes with the touch screen because my fingers (and I think most peoples fingers) are simply too big for many screen selections including the keyboard on the iPod Touch. I’m only using my forefinger so there is only one selection at a time which I can do with a stylus. The stylus would also help insert between characters which would be preferable to the magnifying glass Apple created. For me this is one of the biggest weaknesses of the iPod Touch.

  2. Paul Harrigan

    04/12/2010 at 2:26 pm

    I really don’t understand Steve Jobs’ point.

    Over multiple millenia, human beings have developed and learned to choose between a variety of stylii that support specific needs. For reading, we use fingers to turn pages — essentially the system used on the Ipad. For painting, we use brushes of various widths, textures, and vary the pressure to change effects. For writing, we use fine-pointed instruments, well-balanced and properly sized, like a good Mont Blanc pen.

    Why throw all that out.

    I really love the Ipad, but I don’t understand why I should have to paint and write with my fingers, which goes against almost everything we have learned for millenia.

  3. Scott McB

    04/12/2010 at 2:59 pm

    I whole heartedly agree with you – an active digitizer is indispensible!!! Hence, I’m still using my over-5 year old acer travemate. It still competes with today’s tablets, and has a larger screen which I much prefer. Just try to find a tablet today with a screen the exact size of an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper! And touch input is nice, but the active digitizer is so much more accurate.

  4. Stuart

    04/12/2010 at 3:10 pm

    There will always be use cases for any/all types of interactions. People who are outside in the cold or medical professionals wearing gloves might prefer resistive touch because they are not getting their fingertips on the screen.

    There are a number of new devices with active digitizer/capacitive touch out there and that will always cost more than using just one type of touch technology but if someone could market it well then it might start to take off.

  5. Mike Reilly

    04/12/2010 at 4:48 pm

    Let’s think outside of the box for a moment.
    How about a battery operated pointed pen that mimics the electronics of a finger? The pen and accompanying software would know the pressure being used, and perhaps even the tilt.
    Perhaps the computer gps sensor could even be used as a location assist to the digitizer.
    The computer OS would need 1) to permit the screen digitizer to lower sensitivity, except for location of the pen, 2) to permit the pen to virtually take over input while it is being used, and 3) to switch rapidly between pen and touch.
    I doubt Apple would permit an App to have that much control, unless it were their own, and Steve Jobs wouldn’t permit it even then. He doesn’t like pens.
    I can think of one company that could make a pen like that: Wacom; but I don’t think they would want to. It would open up a can of competitive worms.
    It’s an interesting idea, though.

  6. ChrisRS

    04/12/2010 at 5:33 pm

    Xavier, I thionk that you are trying to be provocative. Do you mean that, if you see a DIY stylus that … the comsumer blew it when they purchased an inadequate device? or … the manufacturer blew it when they did not include an active digitizer? or … do you agree with SJ that consumer blew it by thinking there was a place/need/use for ink (active digitizer)?

    I have used active digitiver Tablet PCs for a number of years. I would like a combination of active ink and touch, but have not taken the plunge. I hear the capcitve is better that resistive, but do not know why. Does resitive pretty much require a stylus? If so, I can see why Capacitive is popular. It does look to me like restive is a better compromize, if you do not have active as well.

    I still think Active and “whatever” touch would be the best.

    • Brett Gilbertson

      04/12/2010 at 7:59 pm

      It’s Brett by the way. No offence taken… ;-) And, yes I was being provocative by agreeing with Steve Jobs.

      So yes, the consumer blew it when they bought a device that could not be used effectively to take notes, mark-up and draw. They’re happy since they don’t know what they’re missing though, so we’ll leave them in ignorance (is bliss).

      Yes, Apple blew it when they ignored the possibility of note taking, mark-up and drawing by not including an active digitizer. Think they could have sold a million iPads by now with both!

      So many people I know are dying to get rid of their collection of paper spiral notebooks but just don’t want to pay USD$2000 to do it. At USD$500 or $600 it would be a no-brainer.

      As for your questions on touch:

      Capacitive touch requires a lighter touch. It generally considered nicer to use for that reason. It doesn’t work well with a stylus or with gloved hands. It generally offers multi-touch support.

      Resistive touch works with a stylus or gloves, but requires you to press a little harder.

      So yes, a device with an active digitizer and a capacitive touch screen is ideal.

  7. Brett Gilbertson

    04/12/2010 at 7:47 pm

    John – Great point – “If you see a magnifying glass they blew it!”

    Paul Harrigan, Scott McB Thanks for your comments. Glad to know I’m not the only one who thinks this!

    Stuart, good comment. I reccommend the Active Digitizer to health professionals. For example we have about 25 nurses at the Austin Hospital here in Melbourne that us the Motion C5. There is little that touch can add to the device for them at the moment as most applications for them don’t really support it at all. Pen works perfectly for them.

    Mike Reily – awesome idea. Hope someone gets onto that!

  8. Nameless

    04/12/2010 at 9:03 pm

    I actually make a similar distinction when it comes to this sort of thing.

    Stylus = basic pen-like stick made for use on resistive or capacitive digitizers

    Pen = sophisticated electro-magnetic-resonance based writing/drawing tool made for drawing tablets (Wacom being the most popular)

    Unfortunately, the iPad with a capacitive stylus and a special glove to work around the lack of palm rejection simply cannot come close to anything with Wacom’s active pen digitizer tech. That is why Steve Jobs won’t get my money-as much the developers try to work around it, software simply cannot replace missing hardware in this case. I certainly won’t compromise my expectations just because the iPad is the hip new gadget and people are trying to shoehorn it into that purpose.

    And the worst part? Just about all of the other iPad specs are great! IPS screen, long battery life…so close to being a good pen and paper substitute, only they forgot one key half of that equation, most likely deliberately so.

    • Brett Gilbertson

      04/12/2010 at 9:08 pm

      I fully agree Nameless. I could maybe even cope with the closed off and limited iPhone OS but for lack of a pen…

  9. Virtuous

    04/12/2010 at 9:20 pm

    The number of people using styli with devices is declining. Tablet PCs failed in the retail market. No new smartphones with pen input are being released.

    • Brett Gilbertson

      04/12/2010 at 10:22 pm

      The point in trying to make is to distinguish a digital pen from a stylus… Yes, what I am saying here is that a stylus is rubbish!

      An active digitizer pen on the other hand is a different story.

      There is only one digitizer Tablet PC that I know of targeted to the retail market, the HP Tm2. It’s a bit pointless to say that Tablet PCs (with digitizers) have failed in a market that they haven’t been in… It’s a bit like saying that iPad has failed to capture the server market.

      BTW, I’m with you on this… who would want a phone with a stylus? Not me!

      • ChrisRS

        04/13/2010 at 1:27 am

        The Gateway C (Convertable) series of 14 inch widescreen Tablet PCs were pretty consumer oriented. The original series was based on the Finepoint digitizer; teh follow-up series was Wacom. Both had options for dedicateted graphics. The price premium was about $150 above comparable laptops. These were markested as convertables; the ink beiung a bonus. I belive these all came with a full install of Onenote. You could purchase at Best BUy – ocasionally you cpould actually get a pen to try!

        • Brett Gilbertson

          04/13/2010 at 2:04 am

          Oh Ok, I think that Gateway pulled out of Australia at around that time so we didn’t see that one… The finepoint digitizer was a bit of a dog. I remember going through 4 or 5 replacement pens from HP.

          Still, hardware has improved out of sight since those days (lag is gone, processors and specs are very good) and consumers have not experienced this. Certainly, if you are talking about a 14″ tablet there were other factors at play that would hold back consumers.

          We really won’t know how consumers respond to a retail tablet with an active digitizer and touch until later in the year when HP and others release a consumer slate.

  10. Mark

    04/13/2010 at 12:56 am

    Frankly, I think Jobs was doing his typical disingenuous bit. He knows damn well that there’s only one kind of “stylus” (or pen, or whatever you want to call it) that matters, and that’s an active digitizer. He also knows damn well that nobody proposes using a stylus/pen for UI control, but rather for input. However, he doesn’t like pens (or buttons, or physical keyboards, or seams, or anything else) that disrupt his design aesthetic. And so, he denigrates the stylus as if it were for UI control only to deflect attention from the fact that Apple couldn’t figure out a way to make digital ink work with the iPad.

    It’s much like he said that nobody watches video on a tiny screen, before introducing the iPod Video, and that e-book readers are stupid because nobody reads any more, and that nobody needs cut/paste on a smartphone, and that nobody needs video on a smarthone, and etc., and etc. The bottom line is, he makes these ridiculous statements because Apple isn’t ready to release a particular technology, and/or simply doesn’t want to do so, and he depends on his cult status to convince people to ignore said technology until it either fades into history or Apple releases the technology himself.

    And the sad thing is, this is exactly what people do. Thank goodness others like Palm (with multitasking in webOS) and HP (with pen support on the upcoming Slate) believe in selling genuinely productive tools and not simply nice media consumption devices.

    • Brett Gilbertson

      04/13/2010 at 1:08 am

      LOL, good call Mark. I hope the the HP Slate and others due out this year are really slick. I look forward to having an iPad sized device with even semi-decent note taking capability!

  11. John in Norway

    04/13/2010 at 3:28 am

    My non-active, non-pressure sensitive touchscreen Kohjinsha SC3 works perfectly fine as a notetaking PC. There are 3 things that help make this happen, however:

    1. Vectoring isn’t a problem because of the 7″ screen size.
    2. As long as I calibrate the screen when I come out of standby it gives excellent word formation.
    3. Using a stylus that’s like a proper pen, not the stick that came with it.

    So in my case, seeing a stylus doesn’t mean I blew it – quite the opposite, in fact. So shove that up your turtleneck, Steve Jobs.

    • Brett Gilbertson

      04/13/2010 at 3:34 am

      All good points John, and certainly a stylus pen is the way to go. The stick type stylus is awful.

      On a smaller screen, you can sort of get away with it. I was just showing a customer the touch screen on Gigabyte T1028 and Viliv X70 to demonstrate this.

      However, there are 2 main issues that came up in that demonstration.

      1, Accidental inputs (or vectoring) is still an issue, even on the small screen. I accidentally touched it with my thumb while holding the Tablet. You can train yourself to work around it, but it is a work around.

      2, Writing small doesn’t work very well when compared to an active digitizer. So you tend to have to write big, and that doesn’t give you much flexibility on a small screen.

      Resistive touch is an ok and workable inking experience, but active digitizer (wacom) is much better.

  12. GoodThings2Life

    04/13/2010 at 4:49 am

    Dude, this is one of the best articles and set of feedback I’ve read in a while now! :) I think I’m gonna like reading your articles!

    I totally agree that making this distinction between pen and stylus is more than likely a perfect qualification for those of us who are tablet fans. I’m an inker, and while I don’t mind touch interfaces, it’s the OneNote/Journal/etc experience that makes a tablet interseting and functional. I am the guy who actually TRAINED his Windows 7 tablet’s handwriting recognition and now achieves nearly perfect recognition results… even when I am scribbling. To those who say Microsoft can’t get the tablet right, I argue that they are worse than just wrong.

    However, I doubt it’s what el Jobso has in mind. ;)

    • Brett Gilbertson

      04/13/2010 at 4:52 am

      Thank you GoodThings2Life. I am stoked at the number of inkers coming out to comment!

  13. Rob Bushway

    04/13/2010 at 5:25 am

    Although I am quite aware of the  benefit of active digitizers, they do not provide the user choice in how they want to interacte with the system (pen vs touch) at a given moment. The key diiferentiator is in OS software, and sensing for either and providing the right experience for either input. Capactive digitizers can provide proximity like active digitizers (see ntrig, HP, Dell and win 7) , and not necessary the digitizer per se.

    The key is in the OS providing that base level of distinction, which limits vectoring when inking and great touch when touching. Steve’s comments indicate Ntrig and Win 7 type of work will not come to the iPhone OS. See the recent ken hinckley video for an example – you will not do that on an active digitizer. This is the true reason why inking will be subpar in Evernote on iPad – not because of the capacitive digitizer, but because of the decisions that the base OS will not support it and lack of accessory pens that the os listens for and senses to provide that better experience  

    Thus, I disagree with the premise of your argument in that it is the hardware that is the distinctive. It is the OS software primarily at this point.

    • Brett Gilbertson

      04/13/2010 at 5:17 pm

      Thanks for your comment Rob. You are quite right of course. You prompted me to do a bit of reading on this and I learned something new!

      I didn’t know the difference between the Wacom and N-trig approaches:

      “DuoSense is based on projected capacitive touch, and utilizes highly sensitive pen functionality, with the options of either an electrostatic pen, or a battery-powered pen.”

      So Rob, if you don’t mind me asking could Apple potentially choose to support a pressure sensitive stylus with existing hardware?

      Also, could you potentialy use an N-trig stylus on say the Lenovo S-10 with win7?

      • Rob

        04/13/2010 at 5:26 pm

        Like Wacom, the pen is tied to the digitizer. So, depending on what capacitive touch digitizer the vendor (Lenovo, Apple, etc) implemented and the digitizer manufacturer created pen or allowed an OEM or aftermarket to create pens, then yes. That is what HP and Dell are doing with their capacitive digitizers. The same could be said for optical based digitizers.

        However, the OS (iPhone OS in this instance) still has to be aware of the pen and, like Win 7, accommodate for it in terms of inking, palm rejection, etc. It is definitely not out of the realm of possibilities.

  14. Perry

    04/13/2010 at 10:03 am

    I have the HP tx2 tablet with the ntrig dual-digitizer supporting pen and multi-touch, and personally, I think it’s the best of both worlds. (I just wish the ntrig drivers weren’t so buggy!) I love that it senses when the pen is near the screen and disables the touch input, but when I move the pen from the screen, I get multi-touch with gestures, etc. in Windows 7. Although the tx2 is a convertible tablet, I think this combination approach would be terrific on a slate or pad device and am looking forward to see what Microsoft does with the Courier.

    • acerbic

      04/13/2010 at 2:06 pm

      Since HP has already done that, it would be absolutely insane of them not to make their Slate work that way. I just wish they would get it together and ship already and not just keep teasing.

      • Gordon

        04/16/2010 at 12:41 am

        That’s going to depend on whether a dual digitizer is made in the size they require.


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