The stylus used to be ridiculed, but is now looking like the next big thing in smartphones and tablets

Georg Petschnigg fiftythreeTwitterFiftyThree CEO Georg Petschnigg

Not so long ago, a stylus was considered a sign of backwards thinking.

None other than Steve Jobs, after all, once declared “If you see a stylus, they blew it.”

In a world of electronic tablets, smartphones and other gadgets, the pen-like stylus feels like an anachronism.

And yet, the stylus is having a moment.

Microsoft packages its Surface Pen in with its popular Surface tablets. Samsung has its S-Pen for its giant-size Galaxy Note phones.

Even Apple bucked the legacy of Steve Jobs recently when it introduced the Apple Pencil for the new iPad Pro tablet line, a stylus in all but name.

Startup FiftyThree was early to this particular party. In 2013, FiftyThree released Pencil (beating Apple by over two years, obviously), a stylus for the iPad designed to be used in conjunction with Paper, its award-winning sketchpad app.

To FiftyThree founder Georg Petschnigg, it’s no surprise that Apple chose to follow its lead with its own Pencil stylus. After years of neglect as a last-generation kind of idea, the stylus is ready to take its rightful place as the new best way to get things done on the go.

“Sure, it’s like, a lot of this stuff already existed, but can you put the pieces together in the right way?” asks Petschnigg.

A new kind of input

Think Kit Paper by FiftyThreeFiftyThreeFiftyThree’s Paper and Pencil.

Basically, Petschnigg says, we’re on the third wave of smartphone input. The first, circa the late nineties, was T9 predictive text input, which made texting a lot easier — and sparked a revolution. The second was the multitouch screen, popularised by the very first Apple iPhone in 2007.

Now, eight years later, we’re due for another big change. And it’s looking like that could be the stylus.

The issue is that mobile apps have now grown to be both ubiquitous and complex. Eight years into the smartphone revolution, we expect to be able to accomplish more with our phones than ever before.

But we’re largely stuck using the same basic touchscreen gestures as we were in 2007, and some simple tasks like highlighting text have only gotten slightly better.

“We’ve been stuck with this wonky highlighting system for 8 years,” says Petschnigg.

Something old, something new

Apple pencilAppleApple Pencil.

Now, it seems that we’re ready for something new, that’s based on something old.

Imagine a drawing app, like FiftyThree’s own Paper. Before the stylus, making a rectangle in the app would require going into a menu and selecting the rectangle tool. With a stylus, you just…draw a rectangle.

It’s one less step between you and the thing you’re trying to do, and a lot more precise than trying to do it with your finger. It’s especially valuable in a work setting, when you’re trying to be productive and make documents and presentations.

It’s something the FiftyThree team has been thinking about for a while: The founders, including Petschnigg, were all at Microsoft for many years working on its productivity software.

In fact, Petschnigg himself says that he was working on a browser-based version of Microsoft Office in the year 2000 — back before most people had stable Internet connections at home, let alone smartphones.

Samsung galaxy note 5 stylus hi hatersMatt WeinbergerThe Samsung Galaxy Note 5’s note taking mode.

Most of them worked on Microsoft’s ill-fated, but conceptually very cool, prototype Courier device, which would have beaten the iPad to the punch with a two-screen tablet that combined a touchscreen with a Kindle-style e-ink display, plus a stylus. It was first revealed to the world in 2008, and officially canceled in 2010.

Since then, the world has moved on, Petschnigg says, and we’re ready for pen-based computing. When FiftyThree showed investors its plans to build a stylus in 2012, people called them “crazy,” he says. Now, the question is, “how many can you sell?”

A point with Apple

Ipad proAppleThe Apple iPad Pro.

And he’s not worried about Apple and the iPad Pro, with its expensive $US99 optional stylus.

That leaves out all of the 800 million iPhone and non-Pro iPad users out there, a gap that FiftyThree is willing to fill by supporting all of them. Moreover, FiftyThree is laser-focused on productivity, with or without a stylus, he says.

Oh, and the FiftyThree stylus is cheaper, too, at a list price of $US50.

Plus, while FiftyThree is best known nowadays as an Apple developer, it’s still in cahoots with Microsoft: Paper will support Microsoft’s Office 365 productivity platform sooner rather than later, Petschnigg says.

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