Microsoft shows how Pen and Ink beat Pencil and Paper

By looking beyond pen and paper, Microsoft may have finally implemented something that will make paper redundant.

As a tech-journalist, I think I can count myself among the lucky few who get to play with the latest and greatest (and sometimes the lamest) in tech without the fear of emptying my bank account. One such device was the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. A lovely device in its own right—offering the very best that Apple could muster at the time—but still more than a little disappointing.

Honestly, I don't think Apple did enough to justify that "Pro" tag. Keyboard covers have been available for iPads almost since its inception and the Pencil, while incredibly responsive, served little purpose beyond sketching. The 9.7-inch iPad Pro seems to be a smaller version of the 12.9-inch model; there's still nothing new. So far, the best experience I've had with Pencil on the iPad, not just the Pro, has been with Paper by 53.

The Surface Pro 4's implementation of a stylus, the Pen, was a little better in terms of "productivity", but I was still only doodling on OneNote rather than doing something productive with it. Some of you must have found better uses for the Pencil and the Pen, but those uses escape me.

Microsoft's Build 2016 however, showed the true power of the Pen, or rather, the true potential of such an input device. Previous implementations have always been about 2D interactions, of emulating the feel of pen and paper. Digital is more than that; it's about interfacing with programs, translating natural input into something that a machine can understand and respond to.

More than just pen and paper

With Ink, which is, for lack of a better description, a stylus API for the Windows platform, Microsoft showed us a future where Windows (Cortana?) would understand your intentions. Scribble a path on a mountain and it would show you that path in 3D, doodle on Maps and it understood that you were giving directions.

This is interaction at another level altogether. It opens the developers to a world where the stylus can take centre-stage, one where it isn't relegated to an after-thought. In a stage-demo, Microsoft showed us how Ink can be used to incorporate, say, a ruler in PowerPoint that we can use to align icons. Other demos included souped-up Sticky Notes that would understand what you wrote and the context of that writing.

A real pen on real paper, while a pleasurable experience, is a static one. The digital world can be much more dynamic and fluid and that's what Apple missed out on with their Pencil. They treated the iPad like a sheet of Paper and the Pencil like a pencil.

Take Ink's Word integration for instance. As someone who is almost entirely dependent on Word, having the ability to just scratch out paragraphs (which would subsequently be deleted by Word), highlight text (regardless of your penmanship) and make annotations directly on the document is very appealing. Apple has nothing quite like it.

While the Surface Pro 4's Pen was relegated to a desk drawer, I can actually see myself carrying it around with me now. By looking beyond pen and paper, Microsoft may have finally implemented something that will make paper redundant.

As Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella himself said, the future is about "man with machine", a synergistic relationship of form and function.

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