“If you need a stylus, you’ve already failed…”
– Steve Jobs
Those were the words of one of Samsung’s largest competitors referring to the then standard practice of having a stylus to interact with digital screens. In a time when the digital landscape was volatile and full of change, those words quickly became gospel in a landscape quickly moving towards touchscreens and on-screen keyboards. These words swiftly resulted in the death of the stylus in favour of the more natural option of using fingers to interact with screens.
A short four years later in 2011, Samsung launched the Galaxy Note. Despite initial reactions mocking the device for being too big and unwieldy, the Note series went on to not only change the smartphone landscape. The Galaxy Note was the first smartphone to sport a screen larger than 5-inches when the industry standard hovered around 4-inches. But that wasn’t the key to the revolution. It was the rethinking of a small accessory that came with the smartphone which brought functionality – enough functionality to make the Galaxy Note the first truly productivity focused device: The S Pen.
Ask any Galaxy Note user and they’ll tell you the one thing they can’t live without on their smartphone is the S Pen – a stylus. Something which Steve Jobs labelled a mark of failure. How did Samsung manage to create such a change? The bigger question is: how did they convince millions of users to adopt it?
Functions, Functions, Functions
The S pen was never your run of the mill stylus. It has been a tool that enhanced the functionality of the Galaxy Note series. From the get go with the very first Galaxy Note in 2011, the S Pen was designed to be a primary means of interacting with the device. Compared to the S Pen we see today with the Note9, the first S Pen would seem like child’s plaything. However, even at its infancy, the S Pen was built for productivity allowing users to annotate pictures more precisely and take hand written notes. While limited, more so by Android at the time, the S Pen brought simple features such as note-taking within the Samsung Memo app, taking screenshots and simple, more accurate interaction with the interface of Android 2.3 Gingerbread.
Over the next two iterations of the S Pen, the technology was refined to have better sensitivity, a more precise tip and better ergonomics. At the same time, on the software end, features such as Air View, Action Memo, S Finder and Pen Window found their place in the Galaxy Note formula. The S Pen was becoming the core of the Galaxy Note experience. With new features like Air View and Pen Window allowing improved multitasking, the Galaxy Note series started its transition from a device for the artistic to one made for productivity on the go. The Galaxy Note’s Pen Window feature marked the beginning of multi-window multitasking in Android. It allowed the user to open smaller windowed versions of selected apps which overlaid other applications. This feature has eventually made it into core Android.
These features continued to be refined in the Note4 with higher sensitivity and contextual functionality. It was with the Note4 that Samsung introduced Smart Select. This allowed users to create digital scrapbooks as well as clip items for use later on. Perhaps the most functional addition with Smart Select was the ability to contextually interact with clippings such as being able to link a telephone number to the dialer or an address to navigation. This continued with Off Screen Memo, scrolling screen capture and writing on PDFs in the Note5. Air Command also made its debut with the Note5. It saw S Pen functionality take center stage and become more accessible. The next iteration saw the S Pen adopt note taking functionality on the always on display and gain the ability to translate.
With the core functionalities firmly in place, Samsung took to more artsy and fun features. This led to the inclusion of the Live Message function in the Note8 which allows users to send animated GIFs of their writing in messages. You could also create GIFs with on screen videos. With the Note9, the S Pen gains Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). This allows the S Pen to be used as a remote control for your music and videos as well as a presenter for when your presentation needs.
Samsung didn’t only rely on the functions of the Galaxy Note to dictate their users. They started using the S Pen and its many functions to bring people together. Starting from the Note4, S Pen users could share their musings on Samsung’s own Galaxy Note community via the Pen.UP app. This app allowed users to interact and share their work and artistic endeavours with an S Pen with each other. Centering their community around the S Pen and the Galaxy Note, Samsung has built a strong group of enthusiasts and fans who have stayed with the Note through even their hardest times.
The company has acknowledged the importance and size of this community during the launch of the Galaxy Note8. Samsung thanked them for their overwhelming support and loyalty. This community was also one of the driving forces behind the success of the Galaxy Note Fan Edition which saw a limited run in select countries.
All in all, the S Pen, its features and experiences have become an integral part of the Galaxy Note experience. In fact, it wouldn’t be too farfetched to say that the S Pen is the cornerstone of Samsung’s success in creating a new standard for smartphones with the Galaxy Note series.
Also published on Medium.