If you thought the iPad had come full circle with the release of the original Apple Pencil in 2016, Monday saw the last dot truly get filled in. The announcement of Scribble and new AI-fueled digital ink search and recognition features for the iPad bring system-level handwriting recognition and manipulation back to Apple hardware for the first time since Steve Jobs’ return to Apple in the late 90s.
Considering his comments on the stylus when the iPhone was announced, it felt for a time like these features would never find their way to Apple’s mobile devices again. However, while the Pencil’s inclusion as a non-essential accessory geared toward design and notetaking made sense, Apple’s new handwriting features elevate digital ink to a much more useful level on the iPad.
I remember that Patrick Jordan, the founder of this site, was a big proponent of stylus compatibility and the inclusion of handwriting recognition on the iPad in its early years. I was all about finding a decent stylus and the possibilities of the iPad as a digital notepad, but I have to admit that handwriting recognition seemed like a dated concept to me at the time. Maybe that was due to my exposure to poor versions of it on Microsoft’s Windows CE, Pocket PC and Windows Mobile.
The bad rep that recognition got thanks to some of its early struggles didn’t deter all iPad users, though. Starting with the origins of the platform, there have been those like Mr Jordan who hoped to see it come back around and come into its own thanks to Apple’s new tablet. There were even a few early iPad notetaking apps that included handwriting rec and there are still several good ones that allow you to work with digital ink in different ways. However, just like capacitive styli before the Apple Pencil, there have always been limitations. Chiefly, none of these accessories or features worked across the OS. Now Apple has finally changed that.
So why are these new features important? It’s a great addition for those who love the Apple Pencil and want to be able to use it in a much wider role. However, as I said earlier this week, this is definitely a niche audience. There’s only a certain percentage of iPad owners who have Pencils and only some of them will take advantage of such features. However, I think there is a bigger picture to keep in mind here.
In my opinion, the real importance of these new digital ink features is that they bring a greater consistency to iPadOS and the iPad platform. Apple already took care of the traditional input side a few months ago by adding full support for trackpads and releasing the Magic Keyboard. They didn’t go halfway, either. We got full control of navigation and input from a trackpad and keyboard. Apple filled in the gaps that existed and now we can run the full show with our hands off the screen.
We could already use the Pencil to draw in Notes and other notetaking apps, as well as using it to navigate the OS. Thanks to Scribble, we can also use the Apple Pencil to fill in fields, write messages, perform Internet searches, etc.
It may not be as fast an input method as the iPad’s on-screen keyboard, but again, it’s about consistency across the OS.
If you are using a keyboard and trackpad, you have the ability to control the user experience from where you are without having to change input methods. Now you can do the same with the Apple Pencil. If you are in the middle of drawing or taking a note and you need to quickly respond to a text or email, now you can with the input method you are already using without breaking stride. It may be a niche feature, but Scribble also elevates the Pencil from a limited accessory to one of three relatively equivalent input methods for iPadOS.
Apple also added some quality icing onto this cake. The ability to search digital ink is a huge feature for those of us who prefer to take handwritten notes.
I am no digital artist, but I do prefer this method for meeting and class notes. I have always felt that writing them out helps me remember details, a fact which has also been backed up by a few scientific studies. However, the drawback on the iPad has always been that you can’t do as much with those notes when you are done, at least not unless you upload them somewhere else for analysis.
The ability to search digital ink after the fact adds a new dimension to taking handwritten notes. They are no longer marooned on the iPad with no way to easily find what you need after the fact. The ability to search my handwriting makes me more likely to take notes this way more often.
The ability to work with digital ink is also a welcomed addition. We can now select digital text and move or copy and paste it elsewhere.
Most notetaking apps have this capability, but it’s much better to have this feature built in at the system level. That only strengthens those other apps by making some of the basics more consistent. Even better, we can also copy and convert digital ink to text for use elsewhere. Again, this should just encourage those of us who like digital ink for notes to use it more often.
I was a little disappointed when I figured out that all of Apple’s new widget capabilities weren’t coming across from iOS 14 to iPadOS 14 after Monday’s Keynote. It still feels like a missed opportunity on Apple’s part, but that’s a discussion for a different day. Scribble and these digital ink features also felt a bit niche to be this year’s flagship additions to the iPad at first.
However, these new capabilities also fit perfectly into what Apple is doing with iPadOS right now. Elevating all input methods to a point where each can control the basics of the OS is a smart move that will make everyone who uses an iPad feel at home, no matter what they are doing with it. Niche or not, that’s a smart move on Apple’s part.