Is the Stylus Back in Style?

Despite Hero Devices, Pen Input Isn’t a KSP

S_pen_lThe touching advert for Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3 reminds the world about the forgotten art of handwriting, listing a series of compelling arguments for going back to the pen in the age of digital. The sofa, the beach, the blackboard: the world’s a canvas according to Samsung. It’s time to let our imaginations break free of the limitations of ready-made fonts and clip art.

However, there’s little market demand for pen input despite a series of good products over the past decade — even users who grew up with the Nintendo DS and PalmPilot appear satisfied with touch screens and digital keyboards. The market for pen-input accessories like those from Wacom have remained a niche, and the stylus has found popularity for field work but not for homework. The current-day active pen input is very different from the stylus input experienced on resistive touch screens of the past, but it continues to be a tough sell.

Several key stylus-based devices are likely to get a fair amount of attention at the upcoming IFA trade show in Berlin. LG’s G3 Stylus is a mid-range Android device with a 5.5-inch capacitive screen, but LG hopes the inclusion of a stylus makes this a competitive device in its class. However, there’s little evidence that a stylus is enough to make a phone special to consumers. Samsung’s Galaxy Note range is the market leader in pen-based computing. The Note ships with a pressure-sensitive digital pen and software optimised for handwriting and stylus input. Samsung has defined that segment of the market but there are few indications that the feature will go mainstream.

Consumers tend to be practical. Small accessories are easily lost or forgotten, but fingers go with us everywhere. Even owners of stylus-based devices use pen input on limited occasions — apps are standardised for finger-touch input. CCS Insight doesn’t believe there’s a trend toward stylus usage, and smartphone manufacturers should consider these as niche products. Device portfolios could be rounded out with active pen accessories, but few smartphone makers will have the volumes to justify a device specially geared toward pen input.

There’s a long history of stylus usage going back more than 20 years in smartphones and PDAs, but there’s been a long-term trend away from pen input in an era of precise capacitive touch screens and voice input. The hand-written word is fading in phones.