• Is The Desktop Ready For Touch?

    Now that we have iPhones and iPads, touch screens are finally a mainstream technology. Trackpads have progressed from being just a pointing devices to becoming gesture devices. This new level of interactivity is changing the way we interact with our computers, and how we think about interface design. What does this mean for desktop computers, and are they ready for it?

    Before I go any further, take note. I'm about to offer up a bunch of speculation. Feel free to agree, disagree, or offer your own theory.

    Touch and gesture support has become a standard function for Mac laptops since Apple first allowed the two-finger right-click. Users responded well to the convenience of this, together with two-finger scrolling. Its convenient, and it makes sense. Then the iPhone came along and brought us a whole new array of gestures - building on the pre-existing groundwork; tap, double-tap, drag, swipe, pinch, rotate. Eventually, these gestures came to us in laptop form, and most recently with the Magic Trackpad. In retrospect, the gestures are all fairly obvious - which is probably why they're so intuitive and easy to use.

    With the Magic Trackpad bringing these gestures to the desktop, we're now closer than ever to the much envisioned next step of bringing touch screens to desktop and laptop computers. There are certainly benefits to having touch screens as a standard input device on our computers, but there are also many problems that go along with this. Let's take a look at the Pros and Cons (and feel free to comment if you can think of more).

    Pro

    • Easy to learn - users are now familiar with touch-based devices

    • Good for manipulation, navigation and multimedia

    • More immersive experience, better user engagement

    • Gives users a sense of control

    • Encourages innovation in software

    • More fun (ask anyone with an iPad)


    Con

    • Cost - touch screens are currently expensive

    • Current software interfaces are designed for a mouse or trackpad

    • Poor fine-motion control

    • No tactile feedback

    • Can slow users down

    • Little benefit for standard business tasks

    • Usually involves a lot more screen cleaning (my iPad is an $850 fingerprint collector)

    • Screens are more prone to damage due to increased handling


    The advantages of touch control appear to be more beneficial to tasks your average home user might perform. Consider the following typical tasks for a home user:

    • Browsing the web

    • Emailing

    • Social networking and instant messaging

    • Working with digital photos

    • Listening to music

    • Creating simple documents

    • Gaming


    Most of these tasks are fairly basic - and don't necessarily require the use of a mouse. Many have limited need for cursor accuracy or speed and are prime tasks for a touch screen. Some tasks would be best done with a hardware keyboard, and others are acceptable without.

    Thinking about business tasks, the list changes. Some tasks are pretty standard, like emailing - but others are very business specific. In a business environment, the focus is very different - the computer becomes utilitarian. There is little call for an engaging user experience - in fact, much of the business software I've seen appears to have little consideration for the user experience at all. Its more important to get things done - and as a user that performs in-depth and complex operations all day, a reliance of any kind of touch control would only slow me down. Certainly some gestures are useful - but considering all the different applications I would use on a daily basis, there is little call for gesture based computing within a typical business. Ultimately, this all depends on the business, but at a broad glance I don't see an obvious benefit. Tell me I'm wrong.

    What needs to change?


    The simple answer is interface design. Traditional desktop OS interfaces are designed for a mouse or trackpad. There's not much to be gained by bringing multitouch to an iMac if only a handful of apps are designed for it. Introducing the element of touch over the top of the existing design is more of a cheap hack than a longterm solution - something which Apple is right on top of with iOS. They didn't take a Mac GUI and modify it - they started from scratch. Unfortunately, this relies on third party developers to come to add support - which costs time and money. To complicate things, there is a transitional period where some users have the technology, and some don't. This all adds to the complexity of implementing support - which would result in a very slow uptake.

    To properly operate the current Mac OS using touch controls, you either need small fingers, or a bigger user interface. Fingers aren't terribly accurate when it comes to touch screens, and accidentally brushing the screen will be a problem. With all the toolbar buttons and junk in our user interfaces, you'll be clicking on all manner of things. Then there are other problems, like how to distinguish between moving the cursor, clicking and clicking then dragging - a problem that iOS doesn't have. It also raises problems with multitasking - could you have two apps being controlled at the same time with different hands? How do you make fine cursor movements? How do you right-click?

    The Finder as we know it isn't ready for fingers.

    Another Way?


    There is another way to encourage touch-based computing, and I think Apple has already begun doing that. Rather than bringing touch to the desktop, which not bring the desktop to touch? The iPad seems to do exactly that. Take the most common user tasks, and put them in an easy to use device. There's no existing software, so developers have to start from scratch. In this case, that's a good thing.

    So what if you want to download your digital photos, or edit a movie? The iPad is definitely missing a few things - but it's not meant to be a desktop replacement. Yet.

    Right now, the iPad fits a purpose I'd call 'casual computing'. You generally don't sit down at a desk to use an iPad - you'd probably sit on the couch. There's nothing especially formal about using it. The iPad does most basic tasks pretty well, but it's more of an assistive device; that is, it gets used as well as a desktop computer - not instead of it. So what would make it suitable for a home user as a desktop replacement? Device connectivity? A bigger screen?

    I'll go out on a limb and speculate that the iPad is more likely to turn into the touch screen iMac, than the iMac is to turn into the iPad. If I consider just what a touch screen iMac is... By the time you tweak the user interface, and redesign the software, it's just a big iPad with USB ports and a hard drive - though I'm clearly oversimplifying. An iMac is certainly more flexible, but when you're talking about your average Joe, flexibility usually isn't that big a requirement. If it is, there is always the possibility of a hybrid device. Think iPad with an advanced docking station. Maybe the dock has USB ports, a hard drive, a WiFi access point. For everyday home user tasks, thats fairly adequate. Since it's primarily a portable device, there may be no need for a large screen.

    When?


    That's the big question. In a way, it's already here (these guys add touchscreens to macs) - but they're really not a complete solution. I'd say we're at least 18 months away from an Apple touch screen desktop - if at all. Touch based application development is still in its infancy, and the technology has a long way to go. Multitouch is great, but tactile feedback seems to be the missing link. Cost is still an issue. Getting developer buy-in is a problem. Getting the rest of the computing world to sign up will take time (face it, Windows matters). iPad interfaces are good, but can be clunky and slow to use - and they're not up to complex tasks. There are many challenges, and few overwhelming reasons to solve them.

    So there you have it; some thoughts and opinions, and hopefully a sign of things to come. Or a complete load of crap. Let me know what you think.
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