From Simon to S-Pen: History of the Stylus

The evolution of the touchscreen pen.

By on November 27, 2012

The stylus, a digital pen for touchscreen devices, is experiencing a revival with some of today’s latest smartphones. This tool has evolved from its humble beginnings and is now allowing customers to use their devices with increasing efficiency and creativity.

The stylus first came onto the mobile phone scene in 1993 with the first PDA (personal digital assistant) device, the Simon Personal Communicator, one of the first phones with email, text messaging and calendar functions. It came with a stylus as a simple navigation tool to access these functions on the sluggish monochrome touchscreen.

In 1996, Palm Pilots, the first widely-used PDAs, used a stylus in “graffiti” mode, requiring users to make specific stylus gestures to produce typed letters. Microsoft then developed its first Pocket PC PDA in 2000, which attempted to provide a similar experience to accessing Windows from a desktop. However, these PDAs still only used styluses to access basic functions like calendars, address books, notes and email. With the rise of the first smartphones in the next couple of years, the quality and responsiveness of touchscreen displays improved. After that, the tools became unnecessary for everyday tasks and began to lose their popularity.

However, manufactures realized that styluses have all sorts of new and inventive capabilities on larger devices with cutting-edge displays. The latest devices, like the Samsung Galaxy Note II, take advantage of the control and accuracy of the stylus and create a whole new mobile experience. Its exclusive S-Pen allows users to crop an image straight from the screen, take notes with a handwriting-to-text feature, preview content by simply hovering over the screen, and multitask like never before. The enhanced capabilities of styluses have also led developers to produce imaginative apps like Adobe PhotoShop Touch and Skitch, where users can create, rather than just consume, content.

Once used simply for basic functions, the stylus is now opening up new possibilities for smartphones and apps, bringing some inventiveness to the mobile world.