iPad Pro: Apple's dumb decision to cripple the Pencil in iOS 9.3

What on earth was Apple thinking when it removed the Pencil's navigation functionality in the iOS 9.3 beta? Many Apple Pencil owners are not happy with the company at all.


As the owner of a new iPad Pro, I must admit that I'm enjoying the heck out of it. And one of the neatest things about it is the Apple Pencil. In the current version of iOS, you can use the Apple Pencil for far more than drawing or sketching. You can use it to navigate around iOS itself and that can be a big relief for folks with repetitive stress injuries.

Unfortunately Apple, for some bizarre and unknown reasons, has apparently removed much of the navigation functionality of the Pencil in a recent iOS 9.3 beta. This means that they have effectively crippled the Apple Pencil. This could be a disaster for RSI sufferers and anyone else who enjoys using the Apple Pencil on the iPad Pro.

Serenity Caldwell reports for iMore:

...unlike a real-world pencil or pen, the Pencil is also a competent navigational tool on the iPad Pro's screen. You can tap on brushes or buttons with it, of course, but also perform any of iOS's other finger-based gestures: swiping menus in or out, selecting text, and scrolling lists.

Unfortunately, whether by bug or intentional design, the Pencil's navigational prowess appears to have vanished in the iOS 9.3 public betas. With 9.3, you can no longer scroll or manipulate text; the only places the Pencil works are on canvas or when pressing digital buttons.

Normally, I don't write about beta bugs and features, because it's a beta: There are always bugs, and features change. But this functionality is important enough that I wanted to talk about it before Apple submits its final 9.3 release. It could be a bug, yes: But several betas in, we've seen fixes for Smart Connector keyboards and new features, and the Pencil remains crippled. Which makes me think, more and more, that this is a conscious decision on the part of Apple's engineering team. (I did reach out to the company about the issue, and will update if and when I receive a response.)

...the Pencil's owners use those navigation options, and frankly, the idea that Apple would take away functionality that people have come to expect and depend on is a significant hit to usability and overall experience.

More at iMore

A crippled Pencil means that Apple has lost its mind

When I first heard about the changes to the Apple Pencil's functionality in the iOS 9.3 beta, I almost didn't believe it. I thought for sure that somebody must have gotten it all wrong or that it was just a simple mistake of some kind.

But after much reading on various sites, it seems that Apple has done this deliberately. And to me it means that the company has more or less lost its mind. Why on earth would they take such a great product like the Apple Pencil and then cripple it so that it's use was limited to just drawing and sketching?

It seems to me that somebody at Apple is not paying attention to what the company's customers want and need from the iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil. Think I'm kidding about that? Serenity Caldwell's post spawned a thread on the Apple subreddit, and some of the folks there were disappointed and angry at Apple's stupid decision to cripple the Apple Pencil:

Shepards Conscience: ”Damn. I was assuming this was a beta bug. I love using the Pencil for navigation sometimes just to cut down on screen fingerprints.”

Nickerbocker007: ”My suspicion is that Apple doesn't want developers to consider using small non-touch friendly UI elements in their apps under the basis that the user can just use the pencil to navigate around. My suspicion is based on what Jobs said about the iPhone and eventually the iPad when discussing why they didn't originally include a stylus.”

Bumwine: ”This is taking a hammer to a job that needs a scalpel though. This could easily be fixed with flagging an app for review if it has UI elements that are an impossible square area.”

Afishinacloud: ”I know Apple likes to shoehorn its vision for how people should use their stuff, but this feels like it's gone over the line of reasonable restrictions. It made sense when it couldn't call up the Notification and Control Centre since that could be accidentally triggered while drawing near the edge or something. But just because you've designed a UI that's optimised for fingers doesn't warrant restricting it to that and forcing people to switch between the Pencil and their finger, when it's just natural to use the Pencil while it's in your hand already.”

Machineglow: ”In the 15-30 minutes of playing with the pencil and the IPP during launch week, I also immediately recognized the power of using the pencil as a "regular" stylus. It may go against "steve's vision" but the benefits are clear:

1) tapping anywhere with more accuracy.

2) less physical exertion vs. directy finger touch (anyone with RSI will know what i mean)

3) easier access to all parts of screen: IPP is a big device. without the pencil, you are forced to move your hand quite a distance just to get to a tap target outside of your finger's current reach. Pencil give you a literal stick you can use to extend your reach.

I understand why apple may be silo'ing the pencil's input (stupid one-way to do something mentality and no feature redundancy in the name of simplicity). but if means taking away any of the above benefits, even for a short period of time before Devs can "re-add" official pencil support into their apps (which, let's face it, not all devs will do), then this is a big slap in the face for customers. it really breaks one of the natural rules people picked up with the pencil: Just use the pencil in places where you used to use your finger. Bam. it works. now it's also super easy to write and draw! cool!

Apple must be serious concerned that the pencil is just being used as a stylus to have to resort to these types of shenanigans.”

RoboWarrior: ”Someone mentioned above that Apple doesn't want developers to create app that specially use the stylus, ie create icon too small ram at require precision a finger doesn't have. Perhaps the app reviewers are noticing more of this and Apple is taking the nuke approach. I mean while it does ruin the pencil a little, there are a lot of people who would ignore such rule unless there is a big bat. Apple must have thought this would cause less issue than having frustrated customers with stylus only UI.”

Thefeedtobe: ”Hugely impactful to my love of both the iPad Pro and the Pencil itself. Had I known this was going to happen, I'd probably have held off on the Pencil.”

Utahgamer: ”If every single app including the general UI, apple apps, and 3rd party apps were updated to accept pencil input, in the most intelligent way, then this change would make sense. As is this just makes the pencil utterly useless in 95% of cases.”

Asimovo: ”I find this to be so disrespectful to their customers. Your customers paid $99 for a nice stylus, and now you're going to strip away basic functionality without prior warning? Not cool Apple. ”

OldNeb: ”The pencil made selecting passages in the kindle app sooooo much easier. Honestly, this would have me staying at 9.2 or jailbreaking.”

More at Reddit

As you can tell from the comments above, most people are not happy about Apple's decision to ruin the Apple Pencil in iOS 9.3. And I wonder how many iPad Pro users will opt to skip updating to iOS 9.3 when it is released? Not many people want to lose the functionality that they paid for when they bought the Apple Pencil.

A crippled Apple Pencil is not worth buying

I think it's fair to say that some folks might consider the crippling of the Pencil to be a bait and switch situation by Apple. Many people bought the Pencil assuming it could be used for navigation as well as for sketching and drawing. And now the Pencil may become useless for anything but two simple functions.

If that's the case then I expect sales of Apple Pencils to start going down significantly. Why bother to pay for such a product if it's functionality becomes deliberately restricted? Frankly, it isn't worth the money Apple is charging for it if all it can be used for is sketching and drawing.

Apple should come down hard on developers not Pencil users

As some of the comments above noted, Apple may be doing this to stop developers from creating interface elements that can't be easily accessed with a finger. But if that's the case then they should penalize developers who are stupid enough to do such things.

It certainly isn't the fault of users if a developer does not adhere to Apple's standard interface guidelines. If Apple detects bad interface elements then it should simply refuse to release the app in question into the App Store. Developers will take the hint once Apple informs them that their app has been rejected.

Send Tim Cook an email and ask him to protect the Apple Pencil

As someone who suffers from RSI, I am extremely irritated that Apple is doing this in iOS 9.3. If I'd known they were going to cripple the Apple Pencil, I wouldn't have wasted my money on it in the first place.

Perhaps the best thing that we can all do is to send Tim Cook an email, and ask him to intervene directly before iOS 9.3 is released in final form. He may be the only one who can stop his company from ruining the Apple Pencil for many people.

Update: 9to5Mac is reporting that Apple will indeed restore Pencil functionality in iOS 9.3:

With iOS 9.3, users are able to tap icons with the Apple Pencil, but are unable to scroll or perform any other navigation tasks. In the statement, Apple explained that it is working on better ways to implement the ability to use the Pencil as a navigation tool:

“We believe a finger will always be the primary way users navigate on an iPad, but we understand that some customers like to use Apple Pencil for this as well and we’ve been working on ways to better implement this while maintaining compatibility during this latest beta cycle,” a spokesperson said. “We will add this functionality back in the next beta of iOS 9.3.”

When we reviewed the Apple Pencil last year, we noted that Apple Pencil is unable to activate things like Notification Center, Control Center, and Multitasking while drawing. At the time, this seemed like a decision on Apple’s part to remove any stress of accidentally activating those features while in the middle of a project.

This change almost feels like a reversal on Apple’s part after much outcry from iPad Pro users. Given that Apple has released four betas of iOS 9.3 without Pencil navigation support, it certainly seemed like it was the company’s intention to remove the capability, especially given its stance on using a stylus in the past.

More at 9to5Mac

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