Sorry, Microsoft. It's still a stylus, not a pen

Microsoft wants us to stop calling the stylus a stylus, insisting instead that it's a pen. Please.

surface pen
Credit: Microsoft

If an alien came down to earth and asked what that plastic stick is that comes with phones like the Samsung Galaxy Note or Microsoft's Surface Pro, most people would likely respond "a stylus." Not so Microsoft, which insists it should be called a "pen."

In an interview with Joanna Stern at the Wall Street Journal, Microsoft Surface hardware group chief Panos Panay cringes at the word "stylus" and exclaims:

We don’t call it a stylus! We call the pen a pen. We don’t want people to think of it as using it to tap the screen for clicking or double clicking. This is meant to be another way to move thoughts and emotions from your heart and mind to the screen. That’s very different than a stylus.

I cringe at this attempt to rebrand the stylus. I get that Microsoft wants more people to make the connection that this is a digital pen--something you can do on your screen just about anything you can do on paper--drawing, scribbling, highlighting, and more. But it's been called a stylus--with the same exact functionality--for as long as styluses have existed. (Notwithstanding the ancient Mesopotamian's styluses made from reeds to write on clay tablets.)

Styluses have long been used for drawing on graphics tablets, for writing on Palm Pilots, and for both navigating and inking on tablet PCs--which have been around since at least 2002. (My first stylus-capable device was a Handspring Visor, back in the late '90s, followed by a Toshiba M200 convertible tablet PC, and today I'm still using a tablet PC as my main computer.) FiftyThree, the makers of awesome iPad drawing app Paper, have a stylus called "Pencil" (yes, it's all very curious). Despite the name (the stylus has the look of a thick pencil), they still call it a stylus. (Samsung calls its stylus the S Pen, but that's a branding/trademark thing.)

Saying that a stylus is really a pen won't make people want to use one more, any more than saying a stylus-capable screen is really "digital paper."

WSJ says that "the stylus is reaching a level of technical maturity where it may finally be capable of the unthinkable: replacing the pen," but as someone who's used the stylus for years (and confirmed with other tablet PC users), there's nothing about this that is new or evolved.

In fact, the tablet PC experience was arguably better before the latest revival came with Windows 8. In Windows 7, you can drag the handwriting input box around the screen and it would appear whenever your stylus touched the screen; not so with Windows 8. Also, while Panay says that Microsoft is working to make the experience feel more like writing on paper, classic tablet PCs of old (the ones with matte screens) have offered that tactile pen-on-paper feel much better than many of the newer glossy-screen ones today.

This is just a rant, but it's a rant against needlessly putting a new spin on a product and possibly confusing the people you want to convince (is the "pen" the New Coke?). The problem with not enough people adopting tablet PCs isn't their misunderstanding of what a stylus does, it's the high price of these laptops, the scarcity of apps that play well with it (more people need to use OneNote!), and the need for a more stylus-friendly OS. 

Keep on pushing and improving inking, Microsoft. We stylus-lovers are behind you 100%. 

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