Microsoft Acquires Surface 3 Pen Tech From N-trig

Microsoft has confirmed the acquisition of pen technology used in the Surface Pro 3 and Surface 3, from supplier and longtime partner N-trig. The Israeli company is a key patent-holder for digital stylus and writing recognition tech, as well as the supplier behind the pen input technologies used by both Microsoft and many of its OEM partners. So this brings in-house one of the technologies that Microsoft has used as a marquee feature, as its desktop OS gains support for devices like tablets and convertibles.

The N-trig tech in the current versions of both Surface Pro 3 and Surface 3 replaced Wacom as a supplier, which handled digital pen input for the Surface Pro 2 and earlier generations. The switch initially caused some apprehension among creative pros who’d grown used to using Surface’s digital drawing capabilities in their workflows, but digital art performance in the end was generally seen to be either on par with, or even improved, versus earlier models.

In an official blog post, Microsoft outlined part of the logic behind its acquisition as follows:

We can’t wait to show you what we’ll deliver for our Surface Fans in the future. Digital pens have a ways to go to be as good as pen and paper on some dimensions, and we’ll get there. But more importantly, adding the ability to capture and share the work you do with a digital pen opens up possibilities that traditional pen and paper just can’t match. Today’s investment is another step that will let us push that innovation forward.

I’m a big fan of what the Surface Pro 3 can do with apps like Adobe’s Creative Suite and Autodesk’s SketchBook, thanks in large part to its digital pen tech. Microsoft bringing that in-house helps it keep a key advantage close to its chest, even if that tech mostly appeals to the niche creative audience for now (handwriting recognition and transcription still has some time before it becomes generally useful).

It also could help set the stage for a coming clash surrounding more advanced input for touch-based devices: Apple’s new Force Touch and Taptic tech strongly suggest that it will bring additional pressure-sensitive input options to future iOS devices, and rumors from earlier this year indicate Apple could be adding an advanced stylus to its roster for a forthcoming iPad Pro device.

The N-trig acquisition was originally reported back in February, with a rumored $200 million price tag (price has not been officially disclosed), but Microsoft’s acquisition today is of the pen tech specifically and related assets, not the company as a whole.