Samsung may have beaten Apple in the race to offer a technology-enabled wristwatch, but I can almost guarantee the iPhone maker has no plans to offer an amped-up version of a ballpoint pen on Sept.10.
Though most the online chatter following Samsung’s “Unpacked” event late Wednesday has been focused on its Galaxy Gear line of smart watches, anyone who watched the livestream from Berlin could tell you that far more time and attention was focused on something many observers in the tech space would have considered an afterthought: the S-Pen.
Though the idea of a “stylus” or piece of plastic that replicates the experience of writing by hand on a screen has been around for more than a decade, Samsung’s attachment to it puts it in stark contrast to Apple and even some of the other players in the Android space.
During the live demo of the Galaxy Note 3, Samsung Electronics marketing manager David Park used the S-Pen to bring up a dashboard called Air Command. Its menu offers consumers choices like “Action Memo” to scribble down names and phone numbers, and “Scrapbook” to clip pictures and videos from the Web. There’s no icon for Air Command; it can be activated from anywhere on the screen.
“There’s no learning curve,” said Park, which is probably the most dangerous thing anyone could say amid the launch of a new technology product. In fact, using the S-Pen and Air Command would almost definitely require a tutorial or some kind of walk-through for someone who has gotten used to jabbing at a screen with their finger, though it’s probably less jarring for someone who has never used a tablet before.
At first glance, the S-Pen seems almost unbearably retro given the push Apple and even Microsoft have made around surface or touch-based computing. It also harkens back to the myriad companies who once led the mobile computing industry, like Palm and BlackBerry, that may have held on to the buttons and stylus too long. Yet according to Park, Samsung got a lot of feedback from its customers that they love the S-Pen, and I have no reason to doubt him.
In fact, Samsung’s focus on the S-Pen may help explain a bit about the philosophy behind Galaxy Gear. Pranav Mistry, the head of Samsung’s “think tank” who came on stage to introduce the smartwatch line, said that the company wanted to combine “a familiar user interface and a completely novel interaction.” But not so novel that customers would have to start behaving like Dick Tracy and punching buttons on their wrist. Instead, the Galaxy Gear devices will allow users to simply hold their wrist up to answer a call. Once again, no messy fingers are involved, but that’s not the point. Samsung is trying to build computing experiences that are a little closer to what anyone over the age of, say, 30, grew up with in the era of pen and ink, or watches as mere timepieces.
It’s possible that the real playing field of competition in consumer technology will come down to the choices vendors make in either pushing consumers to change the way they behave with various objects, or mirror the way they have traditionally behaved with them to ease the transition to “computerized” versions. The latter approach could be smarter than it first appears.
At the end of the Samsung event, a commercial for the Galaxy Note 3 finished with the slogan, “In designing your life, don’t let anyone else hold the pen.” I hope somewhere in Cupertino, the geniuses at Apple were taking notes.