By Stephen Schenck | January 3, 2013 4:17 PM
It’s almost a bit magical how smartphones are able to track our broad, imprecise finger inputs and work out at just which on-screen elements we’re clumsily trying to stab. Largely, it works fantastically well, but despite accomplishments along these lines, I was incredibly excited last year to see the return of the stylus, in the form of Samsung’s S Pen. While the Galaxy Note’s pen was nice, the implementation Samsung came up with for the Note II is superior to even that.
As far as anyone knew, the S Pen would be restricted to the company’s Note series of devices, but last week a rumor landed that claimed the S Pen could start going more mainstream, popping up on the Galaxy S IV. Sure, that’s only a rumor at the moment, and one lacking much in the way of support, but it managed to get me thinking: what would the consequences be if Samsung started making the S Pen a regular feature on its smartphones?
Well, for starters, Samsung would have to rethink its Note branding. Devices like the Note 10.1 wouldn’t make much sense if the S Pen started popping-up on Tab devices, but I could understand Samsung still releasing Note models; maybe Note would just become the company’s designation for phablet-sized phones. As things stand now, that would hardly be a stretch.
I’m a little concerned with how well the S Pen might fit in with smaller phones. It hasn’t been much of an issue with currently-available models, but as we start thinking about a stylus on smaller phones in the four-inch range, it’s going to start taking up some more substantial real estate. After all, that pen has to live somewhere, and the space Samsung carves out for the stylus has to take away from room for other phone components. The most obvious one to scale back for the S Pen would be the battery, something I don’t think any of us would be pleased to see downsized. The smaller the phone gets, the more substantial the cuts might need to be.
But hardware’s just one part of the story. Seeing Samsung make a big push for devices with stylus support stands to make the most impact on software. The greatly enhanced precision such pointing devices offer could lead to us seeing some really interesting new software. One idea that immediately comes to mind is the kind of detailed UI elements we see on PC operating systems, with densely-nested menus and maybe even some windowed controls.
Look at the unofficial mods of Samsung’s Multi Window View feature, adding support for new apps and giving users the ability to move around and resize these windows at will. Little minimize, maximize, and close buttons become so much easier to work with when you have something as fine-tipped as a stylus to use.
Beyond the OS itself, more phones featuring the S Pen would mean more developers releasing apps that take advantage of the tool – a welcome side effect of greater market penetration. We could start seeing better utilization of hover events, as well as apps capitalizing on the S Pen’s button input.
Maybe Samsung might even get thinking about expanding the S Pen’s functionality to add a second button, or something crazy like a capacitive sensor for detecting just where you’re holding the pen; you could slide your finger up and down to switch brush selections in an art app, for instance. If Samsung really wants to go all-out with the S Pen, it would make sense now to get forward-thinking in just what sort of inputs the accessory would offer.
Let’s not get too ahead of ourselves, though. I’m well aware that there’s a lot of resistance out there to the idea of a stylus, seen as a relic of the PDA era. Mainly for that reason, I’m hesitant to put a lot of faith in the idea that Samsung could make the S Pen any more than just a niche in its greater smartphone lineup. As should be clear, I’d love to see it happen, but considering middling consumer interest and the added expense it would impose on manufacturing, I think a stylus on every Samsung is going to remain a nice fantasy for now.