What Steve Jobs said about styli (styli really doesn’t seem like a real word, but Birchtree’s stringent style guide requires I use it)

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 3 min read
What Steve Jobs said about styli (styli really doesn’t seem like a real word, but Birchtree’s stringent style guide requires I use it)

I found myself watching the original iPhone announcement today, and I know it’s cliche to say, but damn is that a remarkable presentation. Steve Jobs so clearly presents the current state of the world, explains the problems with the current state, and then proceeds to explain how they’re solving all of those problems in a genuinely revolutionary device. Even if the iPhone never turned into the most significant consumer product of the decade (century?!), this would still be regarded as one of the great product unveilings.

One of the things I noted this time was when Jobs was talking about how they were going to handle input on their screen-only phone. This is where the infamous dismissal of using a stylus comes from. Some people say Jobs hated styluses and would be upset about the Apple Pencil, while others say this quote is taken out of context and he said it was only bad if a stylus was the only option. Well, let’s look at the quote in context!

Here’s what he said after explaining the problem with current smartphones that had fixed keyboards:

The buttons and the controls can't change. They can't change for each application and they can't change down the road if you think of another great idea you want to add to this product.

Well, how do you solve this? Hmm.

It turns out we have solved it. We solved it in computers 20 years ago. We solved it with a bitmap screen that could display anything we want, put any user interface up and a pointing device. We solved it with the mouse, right? We solved this problem. So how are we going to take this to a mobile device? Well, what we're going to do is get rid of all these buttons and just make a giant screen. A giant screen.

Now, how are we going to communicate this? 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. No. Who wants a stylus? You have to get them and put them away and you lose them. Yuck. Nobody wants a stylus. So let's not use a stylus.

We're going to use the best pointing device in the world. We're going to use a pointing device that we're all born with. We're born with ten of them. We're going to use our fingers. We're going to touch this with our fingers and we have invented a new technology called multitouch, which is phenomenal. It works like magic. You don't need a stylus. It's far more accurate than any touch display that's ever been shipped. It ignores unintended touches. It's super smart. You can do multi-finger gestures on it and boy, have we patented it.

To me, this sounds like Jobs genuinely didn’t like styluses for phones. He didn’t say anything about only disliking them if they were the only form of input for a device, he just threw them under the bus.

That said…

Back in 2003, Jobs was asked if Apple would bring movies to the iPod, to which he said, “I’m not convinced people want to watch movies on a tiny little screen. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, “It’s the music, stupid, it’s the music!” Music’s been around for a long time, will continue to be, it’s huge. Not speculative, a real tangible market.” 17 months later Apple released an iPod that played movies. Steve Jobs was nothing if not fiercely loyal to the features he was currently shipping.

Also, Jobs was talking about phones in this moment, and to this day there’s no stylus for iPhones. What makes sense for a tablet/laptop form factor isn’t the same as what makes sense for a pocket-sized phone. Would Jobs have been down on using a stylus for iPads? We’ll never know. I think it’s fair to say he’d never want it to be the only option for using an iPad, but I wouldn’t extrapolate his 2007 dis on smartphone styli to mean he never wanted any stylus anywhere.