The so-called Universal Stylus Initiative launches without the three biggest players

Samsung? Microsoft? Apple? These companies have yet to sign on.

Anyone who’s toted around a recent Microsoft Surface device knows this: Styluses and digital pens tend to disappear. A new Universal Stylus Initiative, released today, aims to make their replacement as painless as possible. That's a nice idea, but the companies with the most pen-friendly products—Apple, Microsoft, and Samsung—have yet to sign on.

The Universal Stylus Initiative (USI) establishes a cross-device specification for digital pens and styluses, including those found in the Surface line, Galaxy Note smartphones, and others. The goal is for one stylus to be usable on any touchscreen device, or for multiple styluses to be usable with a single device.

The USI believes its specification will establish a baseline that goes beyond the capabilities of today’s devices. Active pens will be able to do more than just sense pressure and erase ink. Future-looking features include tilt-and-twist capabilities, the ability to measure motion in nine different ways, and airbrush functionality. Personalized ink settings would be maintained across devices, the USI claims. A USI spokesman said that up to 4,096 levels of e-ink pressure are supported.

Why this matters: We don’t stop to think whether a specific keyboard will work with a Toshiba or a Dell PC, or whether a microUSB charger will power a phone. The USI hopes to bring this same freedom of pen input to tablets, smartphones, and other digital devices. Approximately 259 million tablets will ship in 2016 according to Gartner, most with an active stylus. According to the USI’s vision, you won’t need to use the stylus that the manufacturer provides. You’ll be able to keep a generic stylus right next to your mouse and keyboard—and it will just work with whatever device you connect it to.

dsc03182 Gordon Mah Ung

We’re always losing the Surface Pens.

Who’s in, who’s not

The problem is that, for now, the products and manufacturers that come to mind when you think of digital pens—the Apple iPad, the Microsoft Surface, and the Samsung Galaxy Note line—haven’t yet joined the USI.

Most industry standards are set by the IEEE, or by another, neutral standards organization. The USI, meanwhile, is a collection of PC and component makers. The organization charges $15,000 per year for “promoter” status, and smaller amounts that confer fewer privileges, such as the actual approval of the proposed specification and future updates. Nevertheless, the USI has attracted the support of Dell, Intel, HP and Sharp, as well as key touchscreen vendors like Synaptics and Wacom.

usi members USI

A list of USI members. More are being added, according to USI.

PC makers say they see the USI spec as a way for active pens to become pervasive, adding another way to interact with the PC.

“Dell welcomes the USI v1.0 specification because it enables a great active stylus experience across a variety of touch-enabled devices,” said Liam Quinn, Dell’s Client Solutions chief technical officer, in a statement. “Enabling interoperability among multiple manufacturers also will help drive broad customer adoption of the active stylus.”

The omissions of Apple, Microsoft, and Samsung are noteworthy, though. Apple’s absence would imply that there won’t be third-party generic replacements for the Apple Pencil, protecting Apple’s $99 Apple Pencil price and profit margins. (Granted, Apple claims that the Pencil was specifically designed for use with the iPad, with features such as shading, which is applied when the Pencil user tilts her hand.)

Another is Microsoft, which has a stake in the game as the maker of Surface tablets as well as the author of the software drivers that allow active pens to interact with Windows devices. It’s also not clear whether Samsung considers its own Note pens to be a proprietary solution. Right now, it’s not clear whether a USI pen could work without specific driver support from the device manufacturer.

usi milestones USI

A list of proposed milestones for the USI stylus spec.

There’s still plenty of time for them to join up, though. According to a May roadmap, the first USI-compliant products will ship this fall—probably in-display components which support the new standard. A USI spokesman, meanwhile, says that USI styluses should ship by 2018, or possibly late 2017. In any event, your safest bet right now is to take a cue from the HP Elite x2 and ensure your digital stylus doesn’t get lost—tie it down.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.
Mark Hachman

Mark Hachman

PC World (US online)
Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Tom Pope

Dynabook Portégé X30L-G

Ultimately this laptop has achieved everything I would hope for in a laptop for work, while fitting that into a form factor and weight that is remarkable.

Tom Sellers

MSI P65

This smart laptop was enjoyable to use and great to work on – creating content was super simple.

Lolita Wang

MSI GT76

It really doesn’t get more “gaming laptop” than this.

Jack Jeffries

MSI GS75

As the Maserati or BMW of laptops, it would fit perfectly in the hands of a professional needing firepower under the hood, sophistication and class on the surface, and gaming prowess (sports mode if you will) in between.

Taylor Carr

MSI PS63

The MSI PS63 is an amazing laptop and I would definitely consider buying one in the future.

Christopher Low

Brother RJ-4230B

This small mobile printer is exactly what I need for invoicing and other jobs such as sending fellow tradesman details or step-by-step instructions that I can easily print off from my phone or the Web.

Featured Content

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?