“Yeeccchh. Nobody wantsa stylus.”
Thus spake Steve Jobs, clad in his now-famous black mock turtleneck and dad jeans, as he unveiled the first iPhone on January 9, 2007. Pacing the bare Macworld stage, he hailed the use of “the best pointing device in the world,” the finger, ushering in an era of touchable tech.
Nearly seven years later, Seattle company FiftyThree released the Pencil, an iPad stylus shaped like a carpenter pencil that mimics everything from a crayon to a fountain pen. The company sold every last Pencil within a month and started a waiting list.
Designers Jon Harris and John Ikeda didn’t set out to contradict the iCreator. They met as product designers at Microsoft, where they noticed something: At what Ikeda calls “the most powerful, technological company in the world,” the first thing engineers whipped out at meetings were sticky notes, pens, and yellow lined notepads.
“People were taking pictures of the whiteboard after the meeting and emailing it,” he says. The pair realized that the tools used to generate ideas—to sketch, to doodle, to design—had not kept pace with those used to communicate, manufacture, or even reserve a conference room.
Harris, who was raised in South America, formed FiftyThree in 2011 with three other Microsoft alums. That trio would build software in New York City while he and Ikeda focused on hardware in Seattle. The goal, says Harris, was to “combine the simplicity of analog office supplies with the power and connectedness of digital.” They named the company after the 53 centimeters that make up a single person’s creative space.
Ikeda, a Roosevelt High grad, had calligraphy skills to match his digital design cred. For a year, he experimented with everything from conté crayons to charcoal to determine how his new digital tool should behave. (Neat freak Harris put up with piles of shredded wood curls whenever Ikeda used a knife to sharpen carpenter pencils.)
By November 2013 they had the Pencil, a 5.38-inch stylus that sweeps across a later-generation iPad in lines of any style and color. Inside Pencil is a USB charger, but outside is sustainably harvested walnut or brushed anodized aluminum. One end is an eraser, because everyone knows how to flip a pencil: “That’s old tech. Why is that still cool?” marvels Ikeda.
Paper, their sketching and drawing app, launched in 2012 and quickly earned Apple’s iPad App of the Year award, and its users have already created 100 million documents with it. With hardware and software under way, the company will release a service this fall that connects users. “When all three of those things come together, there’s a holistic experience,” says Ikeda.
Apple’s fall launch of iOS8 will allow the Pencil to respond to differences in surface pressure. The pair hopes to see more tools like it reach the market, and Apple even patented a stylus design in 2012, a year before Pencil launched.
But nothing’s actually simple in the digital world. The team had to develop “palm rejection” to keep the drawer’s hand from registering on the iPad. Yet they still needed to enable finger painting on a whim. “Someone drawing with charcoal will use their finger to smudge,” says Ikeda. “There’s no better finger than your finger.”
That sounds like something Steve Jobs would say.