Why Did Steve Jobs Think a Stylus Meant They Blew It?

Many people that follow technology know of Jobs’ famous line “if you see a stylus, they blew it” regarding modern device input. But I wonder how many of them know Jobs’ reasoning behind it. This was not some throw-away line to disparage other device makers, it was a fundamental philosophy behind the development of iOS.

Jobs explained it during his interview with Walt Mossberg at the D8 conference when they were discussing the difference between Microsoft and Apple tablets. It begins at ~35:00 in this video (emphasis mine).

Jobs: What I remember telling you on the tablet was that handwriting was probably the slowest input method ever invented, and it was doomed to failure. Well, what we tried to do was re-imagine the tablet. In other words I think Microsoft did a lot of interesting work on the tablet, what we’ve done is not compete with what they did. We re-imagined it, and what we’re doing is completely different than what they did. You know, they’re completely stylus-based. We…

Mossberg (interrupting): Their tablet PC that they have now…

Jobs: For 10 years. You know, and what we said at the very beginning was if you need a stylus you’ve already failed.

Mossberg: So, let’s talk about tablets…

Jobs (continuing): And that drove everything, that drove everything. Their tablet PC was based on a PC. Had all the expense of a PC. Had the battery life of a PC. Had the weight of a PC. It used a PC operating system that really needed the precision of the tip of an arrow of a cursor. Well, the minute you throw a stylus out you cannot get that precision. You have the precision of a finger, which is much cruder. Therefore you need to have totally different software, so you can’t use a PC operating system, and you have to bite the bullet and say we’re gonna have to create this from scratch because all the PC apps won’t work without being rewritten anyway. And so we built a very different animal.

Put simply, Bill Gates’ mandate that “you can’t come up with a new OS” for a tablet required that Microsoft use a stylus. We may never know whether the rest of Microsoft thought a stylus was ideal, or practical, or even a good user experience, they were bound to use it because of Gates’ “gospel” that the device had to run their desktop OS.

Jobs’ vision was different: since desktop OS’s would force the use of a stylus, a new OS should be written that wouldn’t. Who in their right mind would argue he wasn’t 100% correct? Can you imagine requiring a stylus on smartphones and tablets today? I’ll go further and posit that had the iPhone required a stylus in 2007, there’s no way it takes off like it did.

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