Everything Old Is ... Well, You Know

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

“If you see a stylus, they blew it.”

That was Steve Jobs’s attitude, and helps explain the finger-swiping elegance of the iPhone and iPad. It was also reason to believe—for a while anyway—that Apple would never dare introduce a pen-substitute for its tablets. No more.

Apple is introducing a $99 pencil that it promises isn’t the oblong scrap of plastic that people used to tap-tap-tap out on their PalmPilots. It is designed so that an iPad will immediately detect its position, force, and the angle of its tilt. Besides, the introduction of new technology—even a tool that seems like this much of a throw-back—is how Apple operates as a cultural tastemaker. (Earlier today I wrote about this phenomenon, which you can trace back to the World’s Fair in the 19th century.) The posture Apple is affecting is, as always: This isn’t just a stylus and it isn’t just a pencil: It’s unlike anything you’ve seen! (So. We’ll see if that ends up being true.)

There’s another key difference here that’s obvious but worth pointing out: The stylus was a terrible tool because it didn’t work very well, while also being essential. The Apple Pencil isn’t a traditional stylus because you can still use your finger on the screen. Which means the pencil is an optional tool, and perhaps an powerful one, but still not required.