iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil

Last tuesday I didn’t catch up with the Apple announcements until late afternoon. I dropped in on my local development team, and between some conversations around the debugging topic of the day the undercurrent was all about the Apple announcements. “Did you hear…”, “Have you seen…” – kind of what you might expect actually. I got the 2 minute rundown from the gang, happy to hear about the Apple TV update, pleased that iPad Pro wasn’t a false rumor, but what really caught me – like many others I think – was the Apple Pencil to go along with the iPad Pro.

When I got home, I kicked up the (old) Apple TV, found the keynote and played it through. Watching the video of the people drawing, sketching, and writing on the iPad Pro was so immensely, hugely compelling to me that I backed it up and re-watched it three or four times. Ever since I saw the first tablet style computer, what I saw in that video is the concept that I wanted to use. 

In high school I learned draughting – the old school, table-based draughting. I loved it, and it formed up a lot of how I even write. Block print, or a more personal, stylized variant of it, became my norm. As I continued in computing, I wanted to use that style of interaction and capturing information with computers. With the stylus and windows OS of the first tablet computers, I tried. OneNote was the only useful thing there, and the world was focused on handwriting recognition. I tried it, and it kind of sucked. But what really sucked was how useless it was for anything other than the one program that seemed halfway decent for it. It wasn’t a general computing device any more, because the software sucked for that style of interaction – the stylus and tablet concept really failed for me.

Fast forward seven years and Apple announced the iPhone, but most compellingly a touch interface and software that worked pretty darn well. Yeah, there’s things I wish they’d incorporated differently, but it was finally the software that did the interfaces correctly. Microsoft technically could have done the same, 7 years earlier with their tablet, but they didn’t have the vision or gumption to make those changes. Forward through multiple iPhones, the iPad, and to now – another 7 years later – and we’re looking at the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil. Like others, I secretly longed for the dead newton and what it could do – it was such innovative technology that I thought could have been advanced, but I get the need to kill it too. The business reality of it, even if it sucks. And through that time, Steve Jobs famously raging against the crappy experience that was the tablet and stylus.

Two years ago, I invested in a Wacom Cintiq. The smallest, cheapest one. It’s a great device, worked beautifully – and it suffers from two major problems. The OS still isn’t aligned with using a tablet/stylus interface. Windows or Mac OS X – it’s not the touch interface with it’s affordances for communicating with something other than a keyboard and mouse. That was mitigated by the applications I could use – AutoDesk’s SketchBook, Gus’ amazing Acorn, but in the end wasn’t generally useful. More painful for me was how absolutely unportable it was. Even the small Cintiq was a mess of cables and adapters to make it work, and the piles of confusion that was setting up the laptop and it side by side was tedious and expansive in space.

Now I see the iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil, which I’m desperately hoping is the successful culmination of what I wanted to use 14 years ago. Generally useful, expressive sketching with pressure and tilt sensitivity, and supremely portable. I want to drop that onto a slightly inclined writing desk and see how it feels. I want to know if it’s the digital reincarnation of the draughting desk that I learned to love in high school. I really hope it is.

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