Why Pen and Paper Are Making a Surprising Comeback

It’s been almost a law of nature in the past decade or two: Everything moves inexorably from bits to bytes, from analog to digital, from physical to virtual.

This year, however, several trends are breaking that law. Specifically, we’re seeing a return to pen and paper.

Return of the Pen

In the 1980s, a paper organizer craze swept the nation. Everybody carried around a Franklin Covey planner, which had special pages for calendars, to-do lists, shopping lists, customizable inserts and much more. Then the personal computing movement swept all that away. Instead of paper and pen, we used a mouse and keyboard to take notes, keep track of things and organize our lives.

PCs were never quite as satisfying for capturing and reading through notes, but it was more practical. You could search, duplicate and back up digital content. So the paper organizer and the pen as an input device were replaced.

In the 1990s and 2000s, Microsoft and others tried to convince us to use a Windows-based pen tablet with a stylus. The market mostly rejected those attempts.

When Apple unveiled the iPad in 2010, the pen idea was further discredited.

Some products, such as the Samsung Galaxy Note phablet, used a pen. And a smattering of crude pens emerged for the iPad. But the use of pens and styli never caught on. Until recently, the conventional wisdom was that pens were dead and gone.

Now, just in time for Halloween, the pen is rising from the grave.

The new pen craze started with a pencil. Specifically, on Sept. 9, when Apple introduced the Apple Pencil to go with its new 12.9-inch iPad Pro tablet (with a display re-engineered to support the Pencil), the star of the show was the stylus. It’s packed with advanced sensors that Apple claims exactly simulate the experience of using a real pen, pencil, piece of chalk or paintbrush. We have no idea yet whether the Apple Pencil will be good or bad, but the demo looks amazing.

Apple has an impeccable record in recent years for mainstreaming previously obscure usage models (such as the tablet, for example). And now we can expect them to help mainstream the use of a pen with a touch-tablet.

One of the facts that stood out at the iPad Pro launch was the degree to which Apple’s new device looked like—and in concept copied—the Microsoft Surface tablet idea.

In an interesting turn of events, while Apple beat Microsoft with their next-generation stylus demo, Microsoft beat Apple to market. The new Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book products shipped Monday, with their magnetically attached Surface Pen accessories.

Of course, Microsoft’s Surface Pen existed before, but the new one is more advanced, and it’s highlighted more prominently for both the Surface Pro 4 and the upcoming Surface Book. Although the Microsoft Surface Pen is called a pen, it’s got an eraser on the other end like a pencil.

Because Apple is now actually making a pen and Microsoft is coming on so strong with its pen product—and both products are advanced and appealing to use—I think what we’re seeing is the return to the stylus. By this time next year, the use of a pen with a big tablet will be mainstream.

Return of Paper

Another trend is the return to paper—not ePaper, actual sheets of dead tree pulp.

For years, paper users labored in the shadows, ashamed to admit that they think more clearly and feel better about taking down notes on paper—or reading paper books and printed newspapers.