Even if you're only casually following the developments in the tablet ecosystem, you've probably heard a little something about the HTC Flyer. It's the tablet that works with a pen. Not a stylus, mind you, but a pen. "A stylus is just a dead stick," HTC PR guy Keith Nowak told me during a briefing today. A stylus is used for navigation, he explained, but you don't need the pen to navigate the Flyer. In fact, you don't use it to navigate at all. You draw. You write. You scribble. Well, only if you want to, that is. The pen is an optional accessory.
The new pen has a pressure-sensitive tip and can be used with the tablet's built-in apps like Sketchbook and Notes, both of which offer the ability to draw directly on the tablet's screen using pen-based input. But the really exciting thing about the pen? The technology, which HTC calls Scribe, will be opened up to third-party development.
What this means is new apps that use pen-based input could be on their way to your next tablet computer. Developers, think you can build a better notepad than the one HTC ships? How about a game like Pictionary? The idea of using a pen within an application opens up the tablet interface to a number of new possibilities.
However, HTC doesn't know when exactly the third-party support will become available, since the tablet itself hasn't even commercially launched yet. It arrives on Sprint with WiMax connectivity this summer, where it will be rebranded as the Evo View, and it will be in Best Buy stores in a Wi-Fi only version sometime in Q2 2011. At some point after that, Scribe will be opened up to developers.
Is Pen-based Computing a Step Backward or Forward?
I have to admit, before going into the meeting, I was skeptical about the idea of using a pen with my tablet computer. But after taking notes using an ink pen and spiral-bound notebook all day, the idea that my notes could be digitized along with audio recordings of my meetings has real appeal. What's more, with HTC's tablet app Sketchbook will play back those notes and the recording as they were captured, allowing you to recall at what point who said what while you visually see your notes being created. It even syncs with Evernote for cloud-based backup.
Confusingly, HTC also ships a simpler Notes app that works with the pen, too. In this app, you can insert photos from your camera or gallery, as well as scribble text. I can't grasp why the two apps are not one, but it's a minor complaint.
I imagine that if I, as a lowly Internet reporter, can find an immediate use case for pen-based computing, businessmen and women could as well. And maybe even more so. The question will be how well does the technology work? Will it really be an improvement to its analog counterpart?
If you're thinking a re-adoption of the pen for tablet computing is a step backwards in our newly touch-enabled world, you may or may not be wrong. HTC says that touch is the most natural interaction for working with our digital devices, but the pen is still the most natural input for writing and drawing. I'll give them drawing, I suppose. But writing? I'm pretty comfortable with my keyboards, both real and virtual. Why then, do I break out an ink pen in meetings? Why does a keyboard not solve the need there? And can pen-based tablet computing help me change that behavior? It's something which I hope to find out later this year, when the tablet becomes available for real world use.
What do you think?