Jason Brennan: Who Wants a Stylus?


Take your time, and go read Who Wants a Stylus?, because it’s a very interesting contribution that deserves your attention, especially if you’ve always criticised the stylus a bit too dogmatically.

Jason muses:

I have a hard time thinking of things I can do with a stylus because I’m thinking in terms of what I can do with a pencil. I’ve grown up drawing and writing with pencils, but doing little else. If the computer is digital paper, then I’ve pretty much exhausted what I can do with analog paper. But of course, the computer is so much more than just digital paper. It’s dynamic, it lets us go back and forth in time. It’s infinite in space. It can cover a whole planet’s worth of area and hold a whole library’s worth of information.

But what could this device do if it had a different way to interact with? I’m not claiming the stylus is new, but to most developers, it’s at least novel. What kind of doors could a stylus open up?

As a long-time Newton user (12 years or so), Jason’s article has been quite inspiring for me. First, I can say that when you get accustomed to, and progressively experienced in writing with a stylus on the Newton (on the MessagePad 2000/2100 models in particular), you can get rather fast at writing and — at least in my case and with my setup — sometimes writing notes using a stylus and the Newton is even more comfortable than typing on the virtual keyboard of a touch device such as an iPhone or iPad.

But, more importantly, the stylus on the Newton is also used to select, cut, copy and paste text, and select parts or whole drawings:

Newton selecting text drawings

I guess if you use a graphic tablet as input device instead of a mouse or trackpad, you’ll find these methods of selection to be rather similar. Now, as someone who handles a lot of text on lots of devices, here’s a stylus-based application I’d love to use: some sort of powerful writing environment in which I could, for example, precisely select parts of a text, highlight them, copy them out of their context and aggregate them in annotations and diagrams which could in turn maintain the link or links to the original source at all times, if needed.

Similarly, it would be wonderful if groups of notes, parts of a text, further thoughts and annotations, could be linked together simply by tracing specific shapes with the stylus, creating live dependences and hierarchies. Picture this environment/application as the combination of software like Scrivener and Scapple, where you can create, organise and annotate your projects using the stylus as a powerful connection tool. You can use the stylus to generate active links between parts of the project whose information and references you want to keep in sync. Imagine writing a story (for a novel, a screenplay, a comic, an adventure game, etc.) where you need to keep track of the relationship between characters, places, chronology of events, and so on. You can set links with the stylus like you would on a piece of paper, but the pieces of information you choose to link together stay linked and update throughout the project when you make changes to any of them.

In this instance, a stylus would be a much more precise and fine-grained tool for selection and text management than using your finger (think of how text selection and copy/paste are implemented in iOS — the method is truly ingenious, but it quickly becomes impractical when you need to routinely handle longer texts), and it would feel natural, like when you use a pen to point, select, circle, highlight and join different parts of a text or project. This is, in part, a feel I already experience throughout NewtonOS and when I write in its Notes application or in the word processor module of the Works suite, but I think it’d be great to bring this experience to a whole new (and more ‘augmented’) level.

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