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Misunderstanding Steve (Or: Steve Would Be Happy with Apple Pencil)

Cue the ‘who wants a stylus?’ meme.

Yesterday, Apple held a keynote to launch new iterations to three of its product lines: the iPhone (the new 6s and 6s+), the iPad (the new iPad Pro), and also the newest Apple TV. While generally liked (I like them, mostly), controversies just bound to happen.

Of all, one caught my attention. That was, Apple launched the new 12.9″ iPad Pro with a special stylus (yes, a stylus, let’s not complicate things), called the Apple Pencil. It was specially designed to be used with the Pro tablet, and it did have some technological advantages, such as understanding depth and weight of lines, understanding angles, and more. You may want to see the video to understand how it was quite brilliant.

A stylus, it was. The Apple Pencil took people down the memory line. Specifically, to a special keynote in January 2007, that is dubbed one of the best Apple keynotes ever, and the one that changed history. And I mean, the one.

With that specific keynote, then Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, introduced the new, revolutionary smartphone, to the world. Called the iPhone, it was dubbed a merger of three separate devices: a portable media player, a phone, and an internet communication device. Steve, of course, explained a lot about the iPhone’s advantages, and various significant differences with the existing ‘smartphones’, then dominated by the likelihood of BlackBerry and Nokia.

Sometime after introducing the phone, Steve asked, how should the user interact with the device. Emphasizing on the new bitmap screen, Steve brought the Mac as an example of a pointer-based interface. Of course, no mouse should be used with a smartphone. Then, Steve pointed to one possible solution: “Oh, a stylus?” He, then, answered himself, with a phrase that is quoted thousands of time, “Em, no. Who wants a stylus?” and ending it with a resounding, “Yuck!”

Yesterday’s Apple Pencil reminded people of that “Yuck!’ moment. Many said, Apple Pencil was exactly the thing that Steve Jobs would have never done in his lifetime. Seemed logical if they thought, Steve would have been rolling himself down the grave, just because of this stylus.

Competitors have their moments also. Microsoft reminded people on the Microsoft Surface, itself has its own pen and keyboard cover (just like the iPad Pro now). And also, with the recent debacle with a particular smartphone and a pen that will be damaged if you put the pen wrongly, there are a lot of things to talk about when styli are in the play.

Well, is that true? Will Steve be pissed off with the Apple Pencil? Here is my answer: If you think that is the case, you do not know Steve, and you do not know Apple. I think Steve will be quite happy with the Pencil. Let me show you why.

Firstly, Steve is outrageously notorious for saying something that seemed he would have never done, but turned out to do exactly that after some time. In a peculiar twist, I cannot comprehend why people seemed to not getting the cue from Steve.

Examples, you ask? The first example that came into my mind is the iPad. Steve was known to disregard tablet computing, especially when compared to Microsoft (and Bill Gates’) tablet PCs program in early 2000s. Back then, no one bought the tablet PC, and they were doomed. Even when Bill tried to justify the tablet PC as a form of future computing in his joint interview with Steve in 2007, little that we knew, Steve had designed the iPad even before launching the iPhone in 2007. I think I have seen statements elsewhere in which Steve saw some sort of touch screen computing to be the future, as early as the 1980s. And yes, many were duped, thinking that Apple wouldn’t have done it. The iPad was born in 2010, and the rest is history.

That’s not all. Another one, Steve was against movie watching on the iPod, calling the small screen bad for viewing. Guess what, Steve launched the iPod video just a year after launching the iPod Photo, justifying it by saying that people wanted to view photos (not videos). What else? Steve did not want to create an electronic book store? There’s the iBookstore in 2010. Classic Steve.

Not only Steve, though. It is engrained in Apple’s DNA. Remember when Steve said that tablets the size of 7″ were ‘dead on arrival’? Then the iPad mini came along (7.9″), and everyone’s happy with that. Classic Apple, now.

I do believe, when Steve said ‘no’ to something, it never really meant ‘no’. Instead, it was a code, a rallying call, that if Apple wanted to make one of such, the one that Apple made was better be insanely great, otherwise, it has no reason for being (I think I have heard Steve said this phrase somewhere). When Apple said it wouldn’t made a tablet computing, do you even remember what tablet PC looked like ten years ago? It required a clunky pen, it won’t work with your fingers, it has clumsy performance and battery life, and price was extraordinarily high. With the iPad, Apple learned Microsoft’s mistakes, and iPhone’s successes, and build on top of them, an intimate device for everyone. What happened next? Apple rejuvenated the tablet computing market, and I think, without a doubt, resurrected the Surface project that should have been dead years ago.

But that’s not all. Let me bring you a second point. If you see the 2007 keynote in full, I think there was underlying messages that were implicit in nature, and you have to really read between the lines to understand. When Steve was talking about the stylus, the context was not necessarily about the stylus per se. Otherwise, probably Apple could have made the iPhone not working at all with any kind of stylus (perhaps, I don’t know).

Steve was talking about stylus that way because he did not want the stylus to be the primary mode of interaction with the phone. If you have used those pocket PC (dopods, anyone?), you’ll know. Those pocket PCs only worked with its stylus, embedded in a slot on the phone, and you won’t be able to use your fingers just like today—won’t work unless you tap them hard with your fingernails. That’s why, Steve followed the “Yuck!” with fingers: the very mode of interaction we were actually born with. In normal circumstances you cannot lose your finger, you cannot misplace your finger, let alone put it the wrong way. Fingers should be the primary mode of interaction with the phones.

Remember also that Steve also set aside keyboards, popular with BlackBerries. Again, he was talking about the primary mode of interaction with the smartphone. He did not want the iPhone to be used with keyboards that cannot adjust with the user’s needs.

Today’s the use cases are quite different. People are encouraged to draw, design, and take notes on the iPad. It is, after all, the new productivity tool for the masses. It wasn’t thought about in 2007, when the iPhone was launched. A stylus will be extremely helpful. Yet do not forget: Even with the Pencil, the main mode of interaction with the iPad Pro is still your finger. It does not betray Steve’s vision—not even a scintilla of it.

So, what about Apple Pencil? This is how I think Steve will feel:

  • I think Steve will be happy, looking at a smart stylus that can work well with its own device;
  • Steve will also be happy that the iPad Pro’s primary mode of interaction is still your fingers. Styli can exist, only to aid, not to replace.

To conclude, yes. Steve is right, then, and right, now too. It shows that, after all, Apple is still Steve’s company, and no, he will not be rolling in his grave—instead, I think he’ll smile. Steve left a message to Tim Cook, “Never ask, ‘What would Steve do’.” It is partly true, Tim almost ‘defied’ what Steve said in 2007. Yet, it was also the biggest disobedience of all: Tim asked Steve what to do, hypothetically, and with a wink, Steve said, “See, when I said no, everyone of those styli sucked, big time. Now, let’s see if we can make a better one, insanely great.” That boy, Tim, nailed it.

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