One pen to rule them all

The Universal Stylus Initiative has gotten off to a slow start as Microsoft, Samsung, and Apple have advanced their own digital writing implements. But the group is counting on the support of Google and major PC brands to make up for lost time.
Written by Ross Rubin, Contributor

Once derided as a relic of 1990s handhelds and "pen computing," the past few years have seen digital styli come back with a vengeance, even spurring "stylus wars" in which Apple and Microsoft have sparred over which company's digital writing implement offers the smoothest experience, the lowest lag, and the sleekest means of attachment to avoid loss. Customers would do well to note the last point, given that what was once a small plastic stick in the PDA era is now filled with technology that has pushed the replacement price to $90 or more.

Of course, today's styli have features that go far beyond what once scribbled out the Graffiti alphabet on the Palm V or misrecognized words on the Newton. But there's one feature of those pioneering pens included that most active styli lack: The ability to be used access devices. Yes, there are still passive styli with rubber ball-like nibs that can be used on virtually any capacitive display, but they fall far short of the experience that comes with a vendor's stylus.

A not-so-new effort coming into its own may soon change that, at least for devices that support its specification. The Universal Stylus Initiative (USI) got its start way back in 2015, but products supporting the standard have come to market only recently. The group explains the extended gestation on a switch in high-volume boosters. Microsoft was an early supporter but went its own way as it pursued a stylus for Surface, purchasing Israeli technology provider N-Trig in 2015, The 1.0 specification was completed the following year.

However, it wasn't until 2018 that USI got a second lease on life as Google joined the consortium. Today, the group also includes companies such as Lenovo, Dell, Intel, Wacom, as well as traditional pen brands such as Bic and Staedtler. Samsung, which has invested heavily in its own S Pen technology over the years, is also a member; USI notes that its standard can be implemented alongside others. USI-compatible styli are still rare, but the devices that support them are making their way into the market. One recent example: The Lenovo Chromebook Duet I wrote about in May.

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Despite the standard being four years old, USI says its approach can go head to head with other implementations as it includes two-way stylus-display communications that enable real-time frequency-hopping, pressure, and tilt sensitivity, and even a way to preserve settings such as current color and other preferences within the stylus so that it need not be reset when switching apps and devices. USI reps say they have essentially finished a 2.0 spec, but members have asked that it be delayed a bit in order to give a bit more breathing room for products using the 1.0 standard. That said, at Google's request, it's created a simplified button-free version of the standard to accommodate low-cost Chromebooks in the education market.

Ultimately, USi posits, why should using an active stylus with a touch screen be any more limiting in terms of vendor selection than using a mouse with a traditional device? And as for the partner that jilted it, the group has not given up hope on reconciliation with Microsoft, noting that it need not be the exclusive stylus standard supported on a device and counting on the powerful defector to eventually recognize the greater good for the PC ecosystem.


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