HTC Flyer is a newer 7-inch Android-based tablet, which distinguishes itself by offering a unique feature: pen-based input. Not a stylus, you understand, a pen. While a stylus is essentially a stick that lets you press areas of a touch-sensitive screen in order to navigate through the software, the Flyer's pen is for real-world tasks like drawing, writing or scribbling on top of photos. It is an optional augmentation to touch, not a replacement.The
With the upcoming launch of HTC's recently announced OpenSense SDK, developers will have an opportunity to build apps that take advantage of the pen's functionality. But should they?
The Pen Experience on the HTC Flyer
The first thing I discovered when using the pen is that my handwriting is terrible. I mean really, really bad. Even illegible, in some cases. I often struggle with this problem during interviews where pen and paper are required, but with the tablet, it's worse. Plus, for some reason, I'd often accidentally launch the keyboard and pen palette with my wrist when I went to write. The palette, which offers various pen options like felt-tip, ballpoint, pencil, etc. pops up on the right-side the screen. HTC says that "palm rejection" only works when the stylus touches the screen prior to the palm and/or wrist. There may be times when the pen isn't touching the screen, which can cause accidental touches, I'm told. It seems the "wrist sensitivity" here needs work, but there's currently not a setting where you can adjust this.
That said, what's most attractive about this pen-input system is that the Flyer offers deep integration with the note-taking and archiving service Evernote. Within HTC's Notes app, the scribbles and notes you make can be synced with your Evernote account, allowing you to keep online digital archives of your tablet's digital notebook. If you're an Evernote addict, you're going to love it, assuming you don't run into the same troubles I did.
The Notes app also offers other nifty options, like the ability to record audio while you're jotting down notes. Great for interviews and meetings, sure, but maybe not so great for students, where a notebook with a full keyboard probably makes more sense.
Another feature, which doesn't have an accompanying application icon, making it somewhat hidden to new users, is Scribbles. To use this app, you tap the screen with your pen in order to draw on a photo of what's on your screen. There will be plenty of scenarios where this sort of thing will be useful, but each one of them is serving a niche use case, not an overall consumer need. For example, developers could circle and annotate parts of their app's design that need work, bloggers could mark up photos with notes a la Perez Hilton, you could customize a map with more personalized directions and landmarks instead of just emailing a link, you could make silly captions on friends' photos before posting to Facebook, and so on. It's a fun feature, but is it enough of one to convince users to get a Flyer, and not an iPad 2? Doubtful.
Finally, the Flyer also includes a Reader app which is powered by Kobo. It's handy to be able to take notes in these books or, using a special button on the pen, highlight parts of the text, but there's not an option for importing open formats, including PDFs, which makes it sort of a non-starter for students. HTC says there are no plans to add more formats, either. Also, the pen doesn't work in other book reading apps, like Amazon's Kindle.
Developers: Build for Pens?
Soon, HTC will launch its OpenSense SDK for developers, allowing them to build applications that specifically take advantage of the pen functionality supported in the Flyer. Here's where things could get interesting. Developers could write a note-taking app that outperforms HTC's own, for example. There are numerous opportunities to build apps for artists, thanks to the variety of brushes and pen tips available by default in the Flyer.
You could also imagine apps targeted towards kids, like digital coloring books or e-learning games (Circle the right answer!).
The question is: should developers dedicate their arguably limited resources to a niche product? That's a harder question to answer. HTC does have the largest group of developers outside of Google itself, according to CEO Peter Chou, and it has gone on record as feeling "very good" about the Flyer's initial sales, whatever that means. Plus, those who do choose to create specialized apps will probably receive special attention, both from HTC and the tablet's early adopters.
But, at the end of the day, developers would be looking at a very narrow market, in terms of Android tablets, as well as all tablets and all of mobile. Even within the Flyer's own market, not all customers will buy the optional $80 pen. That's a small, small market.
There's also a deeper question here: does the future of mobile computing have room for the pen, or is everything going to be redesigned for touch?