Just as computers didn't mean the death knell for paper, multi-touch screens haven't made pens and pencils obsolete. Even the stylus-eschewing Apple appears to have acknowledged that with the patenting this week of a "smart pen" that can capture physical writing in e-form.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Tuesday granted Apple a patent for what it called a "communicating stylus." Invented by then-Apple-employee Aleksandar Pance, the stylus can be used to write on any type of surface, with the written images either stored for later use or immediately sent to a computer, tablet or other device for digital display.
As the Patent Office notes in its background comments, most styli used for sending data to an electronic device require the user to "write on a specialized surface." By contrast, Apple's stylus -- which has already been widely described as, of course, an iPen -- uses accelerometers to "track the position and relative motion" of the tip, enabling it to be used on any kind of surface or even in the air.
'Nobody Wants a Stylus'
Beyond the unique design of the stylus itself, Apple's latest patent is noteworthy for two other reasons: one, the application for the patent was filed almost five years ago, on Jan. 6, 2010; and two, late Apple founder Steve Jobs despised styli.
Upon unveiling the first-ever iPhone at Macworld 2007, Jobs led into his introduction of Apple's multi-touch screen technology with a pointed jab at the concept of a stylus.
"Who wants a stylus?" Jobs asked the audience. "You have to get 'em and put 'em away and you lose 'em...yuck! Nobody wants a stylus."
Digital Pen Competition
As described by the Patent Office, the newly patented Apple stylus can either store the output of physical writing or drawing motions as position data for later output, or can be transmitted to an associated computing device. That transmission can take place continuously or in bursts, according to the user's needs and specifications.
The pen tip could be any shape or material, supporting -- for example -- a ballpoint, a graphite tip or felt brush. Users could either manually activate the pen, or have it automatically activated by removing it from its dock, picking it up or pressing it to a writing surface.
While it's uncertain whether Apple will ever actually manufacture its smart pen for commercial distribution, many similar devices are already on the market. For example, the Oakland-based Livescribe -- founded, ironically, in 2007, the year that Jobs unveiled the iPhone -- produces several styles of digital pens, although these use an embedded camera to detect pen motion and require the use of a special type of paper. Several other brands of smart pens support writing on any kind of surface.