The combination of Apple’s new iPad Pro, and its “Pencil” stylus, is sublime. Everything about the way these tools work together feels well thought-out and correct.
I have misgivings, however, about what it means for the average consumer.
Ask yourself what you would have thought if Apple introduced a new keyboard or a mouse that could only be used with the latest Mac computer, not with anything that came before. The Pencil is an input device, and input devices have always been designed to be broadly compatible with existing computers.
The Pencil marks a new milestone in Apple’s move away from a certain kind of openness. The iPhone and iPad are much harder to open up and to repair than the Mac. And now, the Pencil is the first kind of input device from the company that rejects the norm of compatibility.
Is it worth it? Apple is going for a kind of total experience, a seamless union between the Pencil and the iPad, and from that standpoint, it’s magnificent. The stylus snaps onto the edge of the iPad with the slightest effort. The magnets not only help one avoid losing the Pencil, they charge the thing, a superb merging of functions. A tap of the pencil on the iPad’s screen immediately opens the Notes app for writing things down, which is a delightful feature.
That kind of ease of use is brilliant design and brilliant engineering. It’s not only a vast improvement over the relationship between the prior iPad models and the previous Pencil, it’s unlike anything else that exists on the market for a stylus.
Despite the brilliance of all that, there’s something that feels slightly wrong about selling an input device that requires the user to commit themselves to another cycle of tablet purchases. It’s not the price of the Pencil, which seems well worth it given its quality (especially compared to the largely terrible selection of styloi from other vendors.)
But there’s something wrong in principle about creating captive combinations of features that seem to make an ultimatum to the user rather than trying to meet the user where they might already be.
Apple could have adopted a compromise. They could have had the union of the new Pencil and the new tablet, while also allowing a degree of compatibility between the Pencil and older iPad models. For example, the Pencil only charges with the iPad, it doesn’t support the widely available “Qi” wireless charging standard, which is supported by the iPhone. If Apple had built the Pencil to be compatible with Qi, consumers could at least get the ease of charging of the new Pencil while using the device with the older iPads, even if they couldn’t enjoy all the benefits experienced when the new stylus is used with the new tablet.
There may very well be an increasing number of such trade-offs for Apple customers in the years to come. The company’s push to not merely sell widgets but to design unique experiences across hardware and software will lead to more puzzling combinations of this sort. Will consumers care? A generation ago, it was expected when buying quality electronics of the kind Apple makes that one could amass a collection of devices over many years that would be guaranteed a certain longevity. That was because they were assured to interoperate on at least a basic level with what came down the road later. Times change, and attitudes change. Today’s consumers may no longer care.