Why the Microsoft Surface Pen is the least-expected revolution in computing

Have we all been missing the point? Way back in October 2015, the launch of the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 was greeted by the usual numbers-driven fanfare – look at the high-DPI screen, feel the carry weight, admire the all-day battery life. But for all the ingenious technology packed into the Surface Pro 4, its real masterstroke is altogether easier to explain.  

The addition of a stylus – or the Surface Pen, as Microsoft calls it – wasn’t a bit of me-too crowd-pleasing. This was a bold step to recast the stylus as a must-have accessory for every tablet- and laptop-buying consumer; to shift it dramatically from its position as a specialist tool for business and artistry and little else.  And Microsoft has made the right call: the popularity of the Surface line seems to fly in the face of expectation. Indeed, the enthusiasm for the products is being driven by users, not by any ingenious viral campaigns or how-to YouTube videos. This quiet, pen-shaped revolution, it has to be said, is starting to look like very much like the future.

As you can see from the dated devices in the picture above, it’s not as if styluses (stylii?) or touchscreens are exactly new to computing, or to Microsoft. At the top right of the picture above is a GRiD model 2270 from 1990 – a device produced early enough to be still running Windows 3, and over-engineered to the point that it’s strong enough to stand on. If it looks familiar, that’s with good reason: the all-magnesium alloy construction was made famous in the movie Aliens, when one of the 2270’s stablemates was used to control the automated sentry guns.

“It’s fair to say none of these devices caught the imagination of the public in the same way as the iPad.”

Then in the top middle we have a Fujitsu Stylistic 5022D, running Windows XP. It was adopted in some quite unexpected places such as Channel 5 News and, even more unexpectedly, my dentist, but never quite took off with the general public. To the left we have a Dell Latitude 10 proving how close tablet computing came to maturity during the Windows 7 era, and then, much more satisfyingly, the Dell Venue Pro 11 to the right, which is pretty much level pegging in both software and technical appeal with the star of the show, the current Surface Pro 4.


The history of pen computing seems to be a case of try, try, and then try again. It’s fair to say none of these devices caught the imagination of the public in the same way as the iPad. For my sins, I did actually use the Fujitsu a fair bit, in tandem with a magnetic-bottomed GPS puck and a piece of software that maps Europe down to one-metre resolution. I can reveal that at over 120mph in a Mercedes-AMG C43, you can’t write the destination name into the input panel, and at that sort of Autobahn-friendly speed, the puck starts to slide back along the roof, requiring the passenger/operator to hold the tablet progressively higher off their lap. Using it was much easier, even as a passenger, when the car was stationary and the puck had an unencumbered, vibration-free view of clear sky.

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