Could Paper do for sketching the same Instagram did for photography?

I find funny that a couple of weeks ago Apple invited Autodesk to demo their SketchBook Ink drawing app on stage during the introduction of the iPad three — the new iPad. This is a fairly complex tool that encourages users to use the device as a creation device. It's a shout to convince people that it's OK to use your finger to draw something. See what I did there?

Now when I see the public reception of of FiftyThree's debut app Paper I wonder how they would have fared on stage. An app developed by former Microsoft engineers who worked on the Courier and that promote the most expensive stylus available from Wacom as the perfect input device for the iPad. This is something I need to try. 

Before you even wonder through the most downloaded App Store charts you'll probably have seen people on Twitter sharing their sketches. The app has a social component that allows users to export their creations to social networks — conveniently accompanied by a link to the product website. The app is free, which combined by this social sharing side, will make it go viral in a matter of days. 

Simplified drawing experience

I'm fairly confident about it for the simple reason that Paper by FiftyThree is extremely easy to use. Sure, the app includes some new gestures I'm not used to, but it's a mile away from apps that try to place desktop UI right on the iPad screen. Do you remember the tutorials included in Photoshop Touch? That's what I mean. 

The navigation is nothing revolutionary and simply builds on what others have done before. The metaphor of virtual notebooks is used to convey a sense of organisation within the app. The beautifully rendered covers get you in the sketching mood for a fraction of the price of the pricier Moleskine counterparts of the real world. The covers are customisable with either some stock examples or your own pictures. I found out that the patterned backgrounds I just happened to have on my Camera Roll looked lovely there.

I'm not sure how this notebook model can scale up, as notebooks start with ten pages and the only way to manage that is add and remove pages without the option to rearrange the order. There isn't any meaningful way to export or save your creations in case you want to print them, for instance. You can always take a screenshot of the iPad screen, but that takes the silly rounded corners of the virtual paper with it.

Premium content

And it's not only the presentation but the features included. Controversially, the app is free and comes with a fountain pen as only input tool. Any other style is available as in-app-purchase or bundled in a convenient lot for the price of what competitors charge for their apps. The tutorial included allows you to test the additional premium tools on a section of the screen to give you an idea. Good stuff and imaginative workaround the App Store's demo limitations. From what I'm seeing on Twitter, people are either very minimalist using the free pen or too cheapskates to pay for the rest.

The fact that the additional pens are unlockable one at a time makes me wonder about the future updates. The colour palette available is very limited (no blue?), and I'd be surprised to see further combinations available for free. If you think about it, the popular Draw Something monetises the game with colour palettes for those who want to pay. 

I remember from my school days having to mix my own colours from some pastel tubes that were basically cyan, magenta, yellow, black and of course, white. This was a pain and I would hate to blend colours like that on the iPad but if you are going to limit the amount of colours available, this should be the ones you need to have. "You can get any colour by mixing the basic pastels" my teacher would say. I would spend half of the class trying to make orange. I'm not going to do the same on my iPad, that's something I know for sure.

As the premium tools go, they add extra layers of depth to the app. From the basic fountain pen and its almost artificial stroke enhancement, having a basic pencil is a welcome addition. It's worth mentioning that the markers behave like a marker, in the sense that you cannot paint yellow over black, for example. 

If you're considering the purchase of the paid content, you need to know you're getting a predefined set of tools that cannot be customised in any way. The same way you can't zoom on paper, you can't change the stroke width. You're buying only one marker and not seven, right? If you don't like it... Well, you could have tried it before on a tiny piece of paper, just like in the real brick and mortar shops.

Navigation and gestures

The most eye-catching part of Paper has to be the gestures used in some unusual ways. The familiar pinch to zoom is used to open and close documents. Swiping to the next page requires a little hold before swiping so it doesn't register as a stroke. Even the tray with pens and colours slides up from the bottom, a bit like a reversed Notification Center. 

Navigating through notebook pages is sold as something cool — see how the tutorial encourages you to go through the "Making Paper" one. I absolutely love the way this accordion-like pages move but I hate how the content hasn't loaded 100% when I flip quickly through the pages. I would expect that a new iPad could cope with the demands of such a simple task, so I can only expect older devices to experience longer loading times.

The perfect Retina drawing kit?

Paper by FiftyThree is limited in many ways. The animation and gesture joy come to an end once you realize these things are getting in the way. I can see some amateur illustrators getting very frustrated unable to change basic settings. The fact you cannot export documents to continue working on them with other apps its also a huge drawback for many workflows. 

On the other hand, you are getting the finest drawing paper you've seen on a digital device — the new iPad's Retina display. The limited amount of tools available might be as limited as the pencil case you take with your backpack. This results in a very easy to use app that welcomes anyone to doodle on an iPad, maybe for the first time.

I reckon that Paper can be the way into an exciting creation world still unexplored by many users. The same way Instagram invited amateurs to look inside professional photography, Paper might do the same for sketching.

There is a social element to it, a sense of pride and a spirit of learning. I want to think that Paper isn't limiting users for the sake of money and developer greed. I want to believe that by giving limited resources you can tell people: "Hey, have a look at this. I draw it on the iPad in five minutes. This is very simple, do yo want to try?" And you'll know for sure that your friend will fall in love with the quirky animations and will understand the tools on the tray in the first attempt. Maybe that's worth the ticket price alone. For me it's all about allowing people to express themselves without having to think too much about how to do it. In this case, Paper has managed to do it even with all its flaws.