Like a Bond villain and his kit of torture tools, Dan Inbar carefully unzips and lays out a small black pouch with two handfuls of sleek utensils. Sitting in his office at N-trig's headquarters north of Tel Aviv, Inbar pulls out a pen, which, as it turns out, is not equipped with a poison dart.
Inbar, N-trig's chief executive officer, claims this DuoSense Active Pen represents the comeback of the stylus to modern computing. Research firm Gartner estimates 270 million tablets will be sold worldwide this year, many of them compatible — and some even bundled — with a digital pen. Inbar says teachers and business professionals would be better off jotting down notes with styluses, rather than finger-dancing all over a keyboard.
Microsoft, a longtime believer in pen-based computing, recently switched to styluses and touch sensors made by N-trig for the Surface Pro 3. Previous models used technology from N-trig's main competitor Wacom. Microsoft sold about 4 million tablets last year, accounting for 2.1 percent of the global market — a distant third to the iPad's 36 percent and Android's 62 percent, according to Gartner.
When Steve Jobs introduced the touchscreen iPhone and then the iPad a few years later, he waged war on the pen. "Who wants a stylus?" he asked an audience in 2007. "You have to get 'em and put 'em away, and you lose 'em. Yuck. Nobody wants a stylus." While Apple's finger-friendly devices have been big hits, reports of the pen's death have been greatly exaggerated.
Samsung Electronics, which manufactures about a third of Android units globally, sold 11 million Galaxy tablets in this year's first quarter, according to Jorge Ferreira, an analyst at IDC. At least 17 percent of those came with a digital pen, he says. Samsung also bundles the company's S Pens with its popular line of large-screen smartphones called the Galaxy Note.
Still, the stylus's revival is far from assured. For one, pen-enabled software isn't standardized. In other words, some pens' advanced features, such as pressure sensitivity and using the bottom of the device as an eraser, only work in certain applications, which confuses users. "Manufacturers are forced to invest in developing their own solutions," Inbar says.
On a more fundamental level, the written word is largely disappearing. Researcher TechNavio says 40 percent of tablet and mobile sales last year came from the U.S., where 46 states do not require learning cursive in elementary schools. Instead, tech companies are paying more attention to advancing voice-control features, such as Apple's Siri. "Kids today are losing out," says Inbar.
Inbar and his 190-employee company based in Kfar Saba, Israel, has a vested interest in promoting the handwritten word, but there is science to back him up. Researchers from Princeton University and the University of California, Los Angeles, published a study in April, finding that students retain information better when taking notes the old-fashioned way as opposed to typing on laptops. Duke University, George Washington University and the University of Virginia have banned laptops in the classroom, and that's good news for N-trig.
Many executives are choosing tablets over laptops for travel, helping to boost the tablet and mobile market to an estimated 25 percent annual growth over the next several years, according to Navin Rajendra, an analyst at TechNavio. Not surprisingly, Inbar is one of them. He uses N-trig pens to takes notes on his computer, preferring the quiet of a rubber-tipped pen on his screen to the click-clack of keyboards. "It's very distracting," he says.