While Apple avoided styluses for its touchscreen devices for many years — Steve Jobs once famously said that requiring a stylus for an iPhone or iPad was a sign of total failure in UI design — by the time the iPad Pro came along, it was clear that Apple had conceded that maybe sometimes a stylus can actually be a useful tool.
To be fair, Jobs’ own comments have often been taken out of context, as it’s fairly clear he was referring to the need to use a stylus as the primary input method for operating a mobile device at all — something that was very common with the Palm and Windows CE devices that dominated the PDA and smartphone market in the pre-iPhone era — so it’s somewhat unreasonable to suggest that Jobs, who was obsessed with great and intuitive UI design, wouldn’t have accepted that a stylus was appropriate for certain applications like drawing and sketching.
While third-party companies had been making styluses for the iPad for years, the “Pro” nature of the original iPad Pro made it an appropriate place to debut Apple’s own first-party attempt in the form of the Apple Pencil, and while this would remain the exclusive domain of the iPad Pro for the first few years, by 2019 Apple had expanded the use of its stylus across its entire iPad lineup, including the sixth- and seventh-generation entry-level iPads, the third-generation iPad Air and fifth-generation iPad mini.
Apple Pencil 2
Due to its tight integration with the iPad, the original Apple Pencil worked better than just about anything that had come before, since it natively connected via Bluetooth rather than simply relying on the screen’s touch-sensitivity.
However, there was still room for Apple to iterate on the design, and with the debut of the 2018 iPad Pro models came a second-generation Apple Pencil that could dock to the edge of the iPad to charge wirelessly — a welcome change from the Lightning charging connector and the often-lost cap that covered it — and also provided a more squarish design and additional gesture controls that went beyond simply scribbling on the screen.
The second-generation Apple Pencil, however, still remains exclusive to the iPad Pro, which is the only device that has the built-in wireless charging capabilities for it. Apple continues to sell the original Apple Pencil for every other iPad, including older iPad Pro models and the current iPad, iPad Air, and iPad mini.
There have also been numerous reports that Apple is working on Apple Pencil support in future iPhone models, and a recent mockup of the 2020 iPhone even showed that it could have a magnetic charging connector similar to the one found on the iPad Pro. This could be designed to support the standard second-generation Apple Pencil, or Apple could have plans to produce a smaller version that would be more appropriately sized for the iPhone.
Apple Pencil: The Next Generation
While you wouldn’t necessarily think there’s much room for innovation in a digital stylus, a new patent application discovered by Pocket Lint suggests that Apple has even more in store for its little pencil.
According to the application, a future Apple Pencil might expand the touch-sensitive area found on the second-generation Apple Pencil to recognize multiple and distinct fingertip gestures, with the ability not only tap, double-tap, and triple-tap, but even swipe up and down along the end of the stylus in order to trigger other functions. A “rolling” gesture is also described that would track the movement of the user’s finger around the circumference of the stylus.
Apple has also filed several other patent applications that reveal even more ideas for where it might take the Apple Pencil, which are also noted in this latest application. One describes a method for using haptic feedback to simulate the feeling of drawing on paper, which would likely be similar to the way that Apple managed to make the touch-sensitive home button on the iPhone feel like a physical button.
Another more wild patent application suggests that Apple could someday add a camera to the tip of the Apple Pencil, allowing it to record the physical characteristics of a surface or object and then reproduce that on the iPad or iPhone screen.
Of course, the usual caveat applies when dealing with Apple patents, which is that just because Apple comes up with an idea doesn’t necessarily mean that it will ever choose to actually implement it, and in many cases patents are filed defensively just so Apple can cover all the bases for things it might do in the distant future. However, while the idea of adding a camera to the Apple Pencil seems pretty far out, the idea that Apple could include a capacitative touch sensor that would recognize advanced gestures is much more plausible, and would be a logical extension of what it’s already done with the second-generation Apple Pencil.