Would Steve Really Not Like The Pencil?

Since the most recent Apple announcement including the new Apple Pencil, comments have gone around saying that Steve would never have done it. Some are resurrecting his past comments about how he hated them. Here’s the thing: Steve said a lot of things, but later did the polar opposite. This isn’t new, so I think we have to take what he said in the past with a fairly healthy dose of sodium chloride.

Must Have A Keyboard

Back in 1997, when Steve had just been brought back to Apple, he did a rather informal “keynote” at WWDC. He wasn’t officially CEO yet, and NeXT will still being incorporated into Apple. It is interesting watching (although the low resolution can be a bit tough to take).

In it, he discussed many different topics, but one that is relevant today are his comments on making a smartphone. He was pretty insistent that doing one didn’t make sense. He was fairly adamant that any smartphone had to have a dedicated physical keyboard. He had plenty of compelling reasons why, revolving around how people used smartphones. They were primarily about communication, specifically voice and e-mail. How can you effectively type an e-mail on a small device without a decent physical keyboard?

Last time I checked, the iPhone had no physical keyboard. Apparently Steve would have hated it, based on his comments a decade before the iPhone was released. It doesn’t appear that he hated the iPhone in any way.

No Smartphone

The 1997 keynote wasn’t the first time that Steve dismissed the idea of Apple doing a smartphone. In the 2 years leading up to the iPhone, he reiterated that making a smartphone didn’t make sense. Dealing with the carriers was hard, and their insistence in unique models that they controlled make getting into the handset business rather daunting. There were no profit margins. It was a commodity business.

What happened in 2007? Apple announced a smartphone. Okay, you could argue that they really didn’t release a “smart phone”, they released a “tiny portable computer that made phone calls”. But they called it the iPhone, and refer to it as a phone. Saying it is anything but a smartphone is disingenuous.

No Small Tablets

Steve also made comments that he didn’t think you could make a smaller iPad. Apparently you’d have to “file down your fingertips” to make it useful. What happened about a year after his passing? Apple released the iPad Mini. This thing had to have been developed during Steve’s last years with the company. These products don’t just appear in a matter of weeks or even a few months of design.

Time and again, we had comments and assertions from Steve that “they would never do this”, or “it can’t be done properly, so there’s no point in trying” and words to that effect. He didn’t think netbooks made much sense, and wasn’t going to do one, except that the iPad and the 11″ MacBook Air fit into that category in a way. He wanted to stay away from the living room, and a year later he announced the AppleTV.

Would He Really Hate The Pencil?

Let’s face it, Steve was the heart and soul of Apple’s Reality Distortion Field. He likely knew enough about art and artists to know that sketching with the tip of your finger just doesn’t cut it. The precision and control offered by tools like pencils simply can’t be equalled with your fingertip. Sure, there are exceptions, but they are rare. A lot of the more compelling art created on iPads was done by people using a stylus of some kind.

Steve would have found a way to make the Apple Pencil “not a stylus”. The fact that the iPad Pro has no built-in location to store the thing would be part of the “evidence”, of why it is more powerful than just a mere stylus. He would have referenced history, and how real art didn’t take off until man started to use something other than his fingers to smear pigment on stone. He likely would have characterized most styli as “plastic sticks” (even though they are anything but) and played up the Apple Pencil as “something more powerful”.

If he felt so strongly against so many of these things, how did Apple end up releasing them? I suspect that his statements truly reflected his opinion at the time, but he was astute enough to know when he was wrong (although he would likely never had admitted it). He never let his past objections get in the way of releasing the right product. I also expect that some of what he was doing was throwing people off the scent (not that it seemed to matter). He came from an era where an announcement by big players could freeze out smaller or less capable competitors. Those days are largely gone, but old habits don’t go away easily.

I’m not convinced Steve would have hated the Pencil, and I suspect that it was in the early stages of design during his last years in the company. The one thing he wouldn’t do is release something that wasn’t “done right” (at least in his mind), so perhaps the early iterations simply weren’t where he wanted them to be. I suspect Steve would have pretended his past comments were never issued, and made a compelling case for the Pencil.