Surface Smartphone Concept: An Active Digitizer is Different Than a Capacitive Stylus


I’ve written about this before, and it’s worth repeating: there’s a difference between a “stylus” and a “pen” when it comes to input on a tablet or smartphone. I bring this up because of CNET’s article, “Does Surface Pro 3 offer clues to Microsoft’s next flagship phone?”:

The number of devices launched with stylus support for writing and navigation are extremely low in the post-iPhone era, a technology that Apple founder Steve Jobs despised.

“If you see a stylus, they blew it,” Jobs said at an Apple event in 2010.

I’m fairly convinced that Jobs was talking about the Windows Mobile-era stylus, i.e., the one used to control a very precise user interface on a resistive touchscreen like that used on Palm’s Treo smartphones and the various Windows Mobile devices. I have to believe that Jobs was referring to the advantages of capacitive touchscreens in providing a more natural and comfortable finger-based touch input and user interface on the iPad. And, in fact, he probably had a good point.

That’s only half the story, however. Jobs was at the same time being a bit disingenuous, in that the Tablet PCs of the day used active digitizers and pens, which are very precise input devices allowing for handwriting and drawing on a screen. A capacitive stylus design for an iPad or other modern tablet is simply not the same thing as the active digitizer/pen input afforded by a Surface Pro 3. And having that level of precision on a smartphone (much like Samsung’s S-Pen, only with higher resolution and more degrees of pressure sensitivity) would be a very nice feature indeed. That would also go a long way toward explaining why Microsoft is buying N-trig, the Israeli maker of the active digitizer technology on the Surface Pro 3 (which is different from other active digitizers in some ways, but that’s another story).

Image Source: N-trig marketing presentation.

Image Source: N-trig marketing presentation.

CNET also reported:

Microsoft’s Stephen Elop was mum about the how the company’s first flagship Lumia phone would stand out from the competition, but offered a little bit of direction.

And it pointed straight to the Surface Pro 3.

“There are a few clues on a device like this,” Elop said in an interview as he grabbed a Surface Pro 3 on the table.

Elop, who runs the company’s devices and services group, touted the Surface Pro 3’s stylus and handwriting capability, as well as the ability to share information in meetings, as key features that Microsoft continues to focus on. “What do you do to take those classes of experience to a new level; in a way people have never seen before?” he said.

I hope that CNET’s interpretation is the right one, because I’m dreaming about a Microsoft smartphone flagship modelled after the Surface Pro 3. Indeed, I’m hoping that they create a separate, high-performance Surface smartphone line. It would leverage Microsoft’s success with the Surface line of tablets and hybrids, and differentiate Windows 10 smartphones, at least at the high end. The Lumia line could remain as low- to mid-range devices, perhaps offering the excellent camera performance that Lumias are known for.

Offering a new level of precision on a Surface smartphone with an active digitizer and pen would be one more feature to tie together Microsoft’s Windows 10 platform–use the same note taking and drawing apps on a smartphone as on a Surface hybrid, in exactly the same ways. That would be powerful stuff–imagine Surface devices running the gamut from smartphone to tablets to hybrids to the Surface Hub, all running the same Windows 10 operating system and accessing the same Windows 10 applications.

Sign me up, please.



  1. Sign me up too!

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