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[Digital Simplicity] Surging appetite for analog experience on digital devices


Former Apple CEO Steve Jobs famously said at the iPhone launch event in 2007, “Who wants a stylus?”

As of February, most iPads come with a stylus called the Apple Pencil. So, my quick answer to Jobs’ rhetorical question is, “At least millions of Apple device users across the world.” And millions more, if I may add Samsung’s stylus-enabled Galaxy Note smartphones.

The point is not that Jobs failed to see a new digital culture blossoming about a decade later. He was not a fortune-teller, after all. The point is why people are so keen to use analog elements such as handwriting even on digital devices.

When it comes to the mix between analog and digital, nothing is more telling than the surging popularity of note-taking apps for the iPad. GoodNotes and Notability are among the most favored iPad apps for taking lecture notes, keeping personal journals and highlighting sentences in PDF documents. Unfortunately, for some mysterious reasons, these killer apps are not available for Android device users. But don’t give up yet, there’s one option.

Many note-taking apps were originally built around digital interface and systematic data input. Now, people use the Apple Pencil or other styluses to scribble down their thoughts directly on the iPad instead of typing on a keyboard, signaling that something intriguing is afoot.

Due to technological limitations, the iPad had been mostly a device for content consumption. Users were supposed to passively watch videos, listen to music or read e-books on their devices. And this type of content consumption was what Jobs had initially envisioned for the iPad.

The concept began to change when the Apple Pencil was released in 2015. With more powerful hardware and faster chips, the iPad is now fully powered to handle not only content consumption but also content creation, helped by the fast-evolving technology behind the Apple Pencil. By the way, remember the first-generation Apple Pencil that was globally ridiculed for its strange charging method? Now, the second-generation’s charging style looks much better, though still less than perfect.

As far as content creation is concerned, the digital handwriting and drawing technology has a long way to go. But a closer look at the way people use note-taking apps like GoodNotes suggests that it’s advanced enough to spark a new trend favoring analog-like input interface on digital devices.

It is not hard to see Korean college students roaming in campuses with their iPad and the Apple Pencil. They download lecture files into their iPad and make some notes during classes. Some students not only write down what professors say but also record their lectures in an audio format, as Notability app automatically syncs the audio with notes typed at the time of recording.

Typing a lecture into a digital file is not bad, as long as a keyboard can be readily used. But making personal notes on study materials and digital textbooks, especially in one’s own handwriting, enhances the memory and creates more vivid experiences. This has to do with the fundamental human desire to touch, scribble and draw -- a set of key physical acts that nurture the creative mind.

A growing number of videos featuring beautiful handwritten notes on GoodNotes and Notability are cropping up on YouTube. On Instagram, devotees of digital journals tailored for the two apps eagerly share their creations, often decorated with cute symbols and neatly written sentences.

For Android tablet computer users, Microsoft’s OneNote can be a viable option, as the software supports handwriting via a stylus. But OneNote’s interface and handwriting system are different from that of GoodNotes and Notability apps, and, more critically, there is no attractive Android alternative to the iPad.

The only consolation for Android device users is that they are in a better situation than Apple counterparts as far as smartphones are concerned. While Apple’s flagship iPhone is yet to support the Apple Pencil, Samsung’s Galaxy Note comes with a dedicated stylus, helping the community of amateur digital painters and note-taking bunch to thrive across the globe, albeit on a much smaller screen than the iPad.

Back in 2007, Jobs said, “Nobody wants a stylus. So let’s not use a stylus.” The rising demand for digital handwriting on mobile devices suggests otherwise. 

By Yang Sung-jin (insight@heraldcorp.com)

The writer is multimedia editor of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.
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