The big problem with Android on full-scale tablets, as we’ve pointed out time and time again, is that there’s no significant Android app ecosystem at that screen size. Google Play apps written for smartphones automatically scale up and work well enough, sure, but it’s certainly not an ideal experience at anything over 7 inches – a fact Apple harped on during its iPad mini launch event.

That’s an old conversation, and we along with others have spent the better part of a year speculating on possible solutions to this problem. Of course, the short answer is “Android devs need to code more tablet apps,” but at the moment there’s not much incentive for them to do so, with a dearth of really attractive hardware running Android at the 8-to-10-inch form factor.

Google seems to think the solution lies in pushing out products like the Nexus 10, devices with eye-catching features like a thin chassis and an ultra-high-resolution display. Outside of the Nexus program, though, OEMs are taking their own approaches to stand out from the rest of the Android pack. As it recently reminded us at its Galaxy Note 8.0 announcement, Samsung is placing some of the burden on the fanciest stylus ever to hit the mobile world: the S Pen.

This ain’t your daddy’s ballpoint.

The S Pen first broke cover as an attachment to the initial Galaxy Note, launching into a market mostly dubious about the prospects for a stylus in the post-resistive-screen mobile world. But the S Pen brought more than most styli to the table, integrating with a Wacom digitizer and special software on the handset to deliver a specialized experience, and so both pen and phone survived the initial wave of skepticism. Indeed, their successors have prospered: we gave the Galaxy Note II one of the highest scores ever for a smartphone, and even the Galaxy Note 10.1 did okay in our review despite some shaky software. In a very real sense, the once-mockable S Pen played a large part in forging Samsung’s identity in the Android smartphone space. Now, Samsung is relying on the S Pen to do similar legwork on its behalf in the tablet sector.

It makes sense: Samsung has built S Pen support into the aforementioned Galaxy Note 8.0, a device that stands to sell in larger numbers due to its smaller, trendier footprint – and possibly because of its on-board earpiece. As the Note brand grows in scale and in prosperity, so too will the S Pen. And consumers won’t be the only ones taking notice. Because in addition to releasing an SDK for the S Pen, Samsung continues giving developers a reason to leverage it to make new and interesting apps.

Samsung’s S Pen App Challenge took place last April, and the company’s efforts to spur developers into coding titles specifically crafted for the S Pen was a resounding success. Forty-eight such apps are currently listed on the Challenge homepage, with 14 called out as “winners” and Samsung claiming to have offered over $205,000 in cash and prizes as incentive. The titles that resulted range from sketchpads to playbooks to photo editors, and Samsung continues to push for their adoption in the form of a special “Best S Pen Apps” section of the Samsung Apps repository.

Granted, it’s not entirely clear just how big a part these apps played in Samsung’s efforts to get consumers to warm up to the Note family. And yes, they were coded for the smaller displays of phablets, not the expansive acreage of full-sized tablets. But this story is still instructive, in that it gives us an idea of how much value Samsung places on the S Pen as a differentiator.

We know the company is invested in the Note brand. We can deduce, based on positioning and marketing cues, that it sees the Note name as the “premium” tablet brand when compared with the older Galaxy Tab lineup. We can see that Samsung hasn’t just left S Pen apps to wither on the vine, as it maintains an active support structure to promote use of the special SDK. We know the company has as much as anyone else to lose if the full-size Android tablet space fails to take off. And we know it’s paying attention to further optimize the S Pen experience going forward; we see this happening already on the Galaxy Note 8.0 with support for stylus-tappable capacitive buttons, the absence of which annoyed us on our first outing with the S Pen on the Note II.

Can support for stylus functionality alone drag the full-sized Android tablet market out of its current doldrums? No. But in concert with other standouts, it has a good chance of eventually giving the iPad a run for its money in the user experience sense. Those standouts include the continued growth of the Google Play Store as a content destination, the rising quality of full-size tablet hardware, and the growing footprint of the tablet market and the Android ecosystem in general.

Some users will never find a home for the S Pen in their daily lives, and that’s fine. But with millions of Note family sales, ambitious targets for 2013, and no signs of a slowdown anytime soon, it’s pretty clear that Samsung’s special stylus could be a significant asset to the full-size Android tablet world. And that’s a world that, despite its incremental growth over the past year, needs all the help it can get.

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