Apple's Next Product Could Be the Very Thing Steve Jobs Said Nobody Wanted

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This story originally appeared on Fortune Magazine

You can’t write a story about the rumored Apple smart pen — or iPen as it’s inevitably dubbed — without referring to two of Steve Jobs’ most famous dicta:

  • “Nobody wants a stylus” (January 2007)
  • “If you see a stylus, they blew it.” (April 2010)

So when an Apple stylus patent gets approved (as one did in March), or another gets filed (as one did last week, the 10th so far this year), one of these quotes is usually trotted out for ironic effect.

But if you watch the video that started it — the Macworld 2007 keynote where Jobs unveiled the iPhone — you’ll see that what he actually said isn’t what people remember him saying.

"How are we going to communicate with this,” he asks rhetorically, referring to the iPhone. “We don’t want to carry around a mouse, right? So what are we going to do? Oh, a stylus, right? We’re going to use a stylus. (Pause) Nooo. (Big laugh) Who wants a stylus? You have to get them and put them away and you lose them. Yuck. Nobody wants a stylus.”

Note that Jobs didn’t say nobody would ever want a stylus. He said nobody wants a stylus as the primary input on a mobile phone. For that, fingers are better.

That there is already is a stylus market — albeit a modest one — is evident on Amazon, where you can buy them on sale in packets of three for $6.99.

That Apple has a team of engineers working on building a better one is evident from the collection of more than 32 filings that Patently Apple’s Jack Purcher has helpfully assembled.

According to Purcher, the iPen is one of Apple’s longest-running projects, if not the longest. Apple Pay emerged 52 months after after its first public filing. Apple Watch is scheduled to ship less than 30 months after it first surfaced. Apple started filing stylus patents, according to Purcher, six or seven years ago, shortly after the iPhone shipped.

“Why is Apple spending so much engineering time and money on a project for 6+ years,” Purcher says, “if there isn’t a real chance of this becoming a real product down the line?”

If there is to be an Apple smart pen, he adds, we’ll probably see it roll out with the rumored iPad Pro. That jumbo-sized tablet, made with design, engineering and graphics professionals in mind, is now expected in first half of 2015.

“Steve Jobs wasn’t a big fan of the ‘dumb stylus’ of yesteryear that was basically a tiny plastic stick,” Purcher wrote in 2011, when Jobs was still alive. “And so he set out to reinvent it.”

I usually stay away from patent stories because most of what Apple files never ships. But 10 patents in one year is too many to ignore. To me, this feels like the watch did last summer. It feels like we’re getting close.

Below: 30 seconds of Steve Jobs on the stylus at the 2007 iPhone launch

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