Thursday, April 19, 2012

Apple, Finger Pointing and the Ghost of Steve Jobs

On the right attention Apple should now give to the emergent stylus pen ecosystem

Some time ago, and not too long ago, the world woke up to the voice of Steve Jobs, announcing the release of this new phone he called the iPhone. It is a sheet of glass with an aluminum backing. The glass has this instant-on video of gorgeous colours and real-life icons. It makes phone calls, surfs the internet and sends messages in a way that other phones could not up till that time. During the demo, Steve even searched the Maps app for "pizza" joints and mock ordered pizza from one of the search results, a real-life pizza joint near him. It was a WOW moment at the time. The cloud roared with a thunderous applause and ever since then, the iPhone marched on to become the most commonly used used smartphone in the world because of WOW features like that, aesthetics, and ease of use and most importantly but most intangible, the design philosophy. I was there listening to the live stream. At this point, I has an HP-made smartphone (which required a stylus pen to work it really well). So, when I heard Steve Jobs say something to the effect that anyone designing one of these devices and makes it require a pointing device other than the finger, then, that device is not designed correctly. And so was born one of iPhone's design philosophies: "Touch is all you should need". I was hoping this would work out as promised. I didn't want to keep buying replacement pointing devices (they were sold in sets of 3 then, as a testimony that you'd probably lose them and often too). I bought my first iPhone (1st gen) before it was officially released for Canada. So I had to get the unlocked AT&T phone from eBay and used it on my Fido service without Fido's approval. And truly, you didn't need a stylus pen for the iPhone. The calls were clear, Internet pages were true browser pages (I don't expect you to remember what mobile device browsers looked like then) and text messaging was really smooth, not to mention the fully integrated iPod music. You only needed your finger to do all those. No stylus, just touch. Steve Jobs was right. Suddenly, it began to look silly for anyone to poke his phone with anything other than the finger.

Pointing and Drawing

A few year later, the iPad was released. Shortly after which a number of graphing apps were released for it. It didn't take long for everyone to see that the finger was too stubby for drawing all the lovely art, including handwriting that these apps required. Then, an ecosystem of stylus pens that could write on the capacitive iPad screen began to emerge. Consequently, it could write on the capacitive iPhone and iPod touch screen but that was more a by-product of those screens also being capacitive rather than a clear use case for these other devices (never mind the extra-long nails and super-cold fingers). My point is that the advent of the iPad made it more and more necessary to draw than it was on the iPhone, making it more and more necessary to have a drawing device for this device. So was born a separation between pointing devices and drawing devices.

Apple Store and the Apple Philosophy

Let me put it as simply as possible: Every Apple product has a philosophy around it which defines the ways in which Apple does NOT want you to use the product. Apple Stores do NOT carry any product that Apple believes to be contrary to that philosophy. Here is a simple example: Apple will not approve an app or a device that plugs into the iPad and use the battery in such a way that you don't get 10 hours of life. Must require no daytime charging is one of the design philosophies for the iPad. Similarly, for all 'iTouch' devices (iPad, iPhone, iPodTouch), the design philosophy is that touch is enough. That is why in spite of all these stylus pens out there, there is none of it in an Apple Store.

What would Steve Do?

Steve had foresight. Apple has foresight. They would be the first to admit, nevertheless, that they can't imagine all the good uses to which their product would be put to and the creativity that their product would unleash. If Steve would think this through, he would realize that a pointing device is not quite the same thing as a drawing device. The iPad stylus pens fill a gap that the finger cannot. Just take a look at some of the great art that is possible using these styluses! The problem is that Steve can't. He is dead. And at Apple I am sure that Steve's ghost is hovering over every one (in their imagination) watching to see who would be the first to reverse those strongly held positions that Steve had. No one wants to be finger-pointed about finger pointing. Steve warned before he died, "I don't want you to run Apple by constantly asking, "What would Steve do?"". He was really a wise man. He knew that situations would arise that would cause him to change his mind on long-held positions. He sure would have once thought that MobileMe was cool. Later he agreed that it sucked! If he dies after saying that it was cool, it would be a shame to hang onto MobileMe just because Steve said it was cool, even though harsh realities indicate a need to rethink. I do believe that Steve would have thought it through. He would rightly have maintained that a pointer stick whose role is just to poke at poorly resolved pixels on the screen diminishes the innovative genius of multi-touch. But Steve would realize that this high-pixel iPad canvas is screaming for a great drawing pen to drain out the creative artistry pulsating in the fingers of the iPad user, desperately beckoning some fine, smoothly gliding, nimble capacitive pen tips to help it flow forth.

What should Apple be doing?

Apple should stop ignoring the stylus pen ecosystem. Apple should support it, help it, shape it and even compete with it. Apple should make a stylus pen out of a transparent thin tip that will totally simulate the real pen and have unbeatable feel and durability. Apple has the muscle to research into that kind of material. In the short run, Apple should open the doors of Apple Stores to let in a few of the highest quality stylus pens. There is no shame in, sometimes, following the market. It is time to follow this one.