Ever since Steve Jobs famously mocked smartphone styluses while introducing the iPhone, it’s been easy to discount the prospect of Apple adding stylus support to iPhones. “Who wants a stylus?” Jobs famously asked. “You have to get them and put them away and you lose them. Yuck! Nobody wants a stylus.”
Back in 2007, Jobs was almost entirely correct: Because Apple focused the nascent smartphone industry on fingers, stylus-free phones became the norm, relegating styluses to at best optional accessories. They still exist — and Samsung keeps making new Note phones bundled with them — but in 2018, stylus slots are rarer in smartphones than headphone ports.
Regardless, patent filings and comments by Apple CEO Tim Cook have led people to speculate for years that new iPhones were right on the cusp of getting stylus support — it just hasn’t actually happened. Apple let third parties dominate the iPad stylus market for four years before releasing an iPad Pro stylus called Pencil in 2015. Earlier this year, regular iPads got Pencil support, too. But for iPhones? Nada.
This week, two very similar-sounding rumors from different Taiwanese sources separately claimed — once again — that this year’s iPhones are getting stylus support. Specifically, the rumors say that 2018’s OLED iPhones (the same-sized and larger sequels to the iPhone X) will work with the Apple Pencil. Since the Pencil’s an inch taller than Apple’s Plus-sized iPhones, some people are speculating that the company will release a smaller Pencil this year, too.
Nearly a year and a half ago, we ran an opinion piece on why Apple should make the existing Pencil work with the iPhone. In short, the piece argued that Samsung’s Note phones and Chromebooks had styluses, and iPad sales were falling, so why not bring the Pencil to iPhones while it was “still interesting”?
I find that logic hard to follow. Even though I’ve been using iPhones for 11 years and Apple Pencils for nearly three years, I’ve rarely felt the desire to use them together. In fact, as of 2018, there are only three areas where a stylus might add to the smartphone experience: handwriting (including signatures), drawing, and precision photo editing. Since none of these things is trivial, why doesn’t the iPhone support a stylus for them?
In the past, the argument would have been that most people don’t do these things often enough on a phone to actually carry a special tool around. Additionally, you can achieve 60-80 percent of the same results with a finger, depending on the task. No one cares if your signature is blurrier. Your notes can more quickly be typed than handwritten. AI tricks continue to bridge the gap for most touch-based photo editing. Except for drawing, the results you get from a finger aren’t perfect, but they’re good enough.
So iPhone stylus support would be at best a niche feature, something that would largely benefit the narrow range of users who care about the quality of handwriting, drawing, or photo editing on a small phone screen. Since Apple still cares about catering (somewhat) to creative professionals, it’s conceivable that it would add iPhone stylus support solely to sate them, even if there wouldn’t be much demand from the larger iPhone user base.
Would it release a new iPhone-specific peripheral just for them? Maybe, but probably not. Might it redesign the current Pencil, albeit this time with iPhone users in mind as a secondary market? Sure. I’m not holding my breath for a radically new Apple stylus — I suspect Apple made its Pencil choices quite deliberately, though imperfectly — but if it wants to improve upon the first version, it could fix the awkward charging, lack of a button, and battery drain. It could add a magnet for easy attachment, and make it a little shorter, too.
Will anyone actually care? Two groups of people probably will: the aforementioned group of creative users, and Apple shareholders. Since Apple now sells over 200 million iPhones each year, if even 5 percent are willing to pay Apple’s current price of $100 per stylus, that’s a billion-dollar business.
Steve Jobs may not have liked styluses, but he loved when Apple made insane amounts of money on new products. Even for a trillion-dollar company, the opportunity to make an extra billion dollars just by adding iPhone support to an iPad accessory might be impossible to pass up, particularly if they’re earned at Samsung’s expense.