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The Mighty Pen Will Change How We Do Mobile

I remember getting my first stylus-equipped handheld computing devices. Back in the salad days of my multitouch input youth, a plastic-tipped pencil-looking thing that made chunky letters was slick stuff. Fast forward to today, and the tea leaves tell us that we may be on the edge of a new pen and multitouch input technology explosion, enabled by slick "active pens" that are a far cry from stylus devices of old.

In the realm of mobile devices, we frequently dwell on things like screen size and wireless capabilities, but not so much on input options. For most of us, the general expectation is that we’ll get by OK with touch screens and virtual keypads. The closest that the we among the masses get to using pen inputs on mobile devices is when we sign for packages on the delivery person's mobile terminal. At the same time, modern high-tech pen and multitouch combinations have quietly crept into some current product sets and have garnered a small but loyal following. After a recent discussion with digitizer manufacturer N-trig’s VP of marketing, Gary Baum, I’m inclined to believe that things are soon to heat up on the device input front.

Baum gave me an overview of a number of compelling applications that his company (and competitors like Wacom) enable through highly accurate capacitive touch technology, from boosting individual productivity by simply taking freehand notes as you would with paper and pen or by collaborating with multiple users on a single project from each individual’s pen-enabled tablet. The active pen of today is its own marvel of computing technology as the keystone of impressive digitizing systems, but N-trig and its contemporaries can’t bring an input-oriented sea change to the mobile world without the help of other industry players.

As Baum pointed out to me, both pending Windows 8 and Android Ice Cream Sandwich operating systems have active pen support, making a range of sophisticated applications possible in ways that simple non-active stylus pens just can’t get close to. Writing and drawing with sub-pixel accuracy on the right device means that results are often on par with pen and pad results, and OS-level support will prove to be powerful as more apps and programs are offered up. These developments will move our tablets and such into new roles, from highly reliable medical freehand input platforms to full-blown portable art studios.

Without accurate and easy pen inputs, most mobile devices are relegated to a consumption role when we use them for productivity. We suck information through them, with interaction that doesn’t much go beyond the relatively clunky hunt-and-peck virtual keyboard tapping or, of course, finger swiping. Taking it up a notch is inevitable, given the growth of the tablet market and accompanying expectations of users really being able to use tablets as, well, tablets. The question isn’t whether new precision smart pen input options will transform the mobile world, but rather how long it will take as new devices are adopted and new applications brought to market.

Heck, soon we may even be able to take notes in meetings on these things.

At the time of publication, N-trig has no business relationship with Lee Badman