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Touch windows (do we have to?)

Posted by putsimply on 28th May 2008

We’re a perennially Mac-based office. And I’m an IBM-head; that’s my great secret.

Admittedly, IBMs don’t work as well as Macs. They’re cobbled together from bricks, computer chips and dust. They break down and are generally troublesome. But neither are they comparatively expensive to buy and repair. IBMs are the Model-T Ford of the computing world. Cheap, clunky, cheerful and easy to fix.

In truth I have a sneaking admiration for PCs and Macs. They both have their place, and Apple has always been ahead on usability. Anyway, this is nothing that hasn’t been said before…

Now Microsoft has announced that it’s following the Apple trend in developing a touch-screen-based system, bringing touchscreen tech to your desk.

This is a PR exercise. We all suspect Apple might bring out a touchscreen computer soon anyway. It seems like common sense. This is also suggested by Steve Bullmer’s evasion of the question of ‘who will get to the market with touchscreen first’. “We’ll sell 290 million PCs and Apple will sell 10 million Pcs”. What a giveaway.

I think touchscreen technology has brilliant potential; especially where space is at a premium (mobiles, small devices such as laptops and palm pilots, and public access points at tourist destinations, hospitals, etc). Also as prices come down it may eventually be as cheap to buy a touchscreen as to buy just a normal screen + keyboard.

However, there is too much hype surrounding touchscreen technology’s application in desktop computers. I don’t believe touchscreen will totally replace the humble mouse and keyboard on a desktop computer. We’ve all seen Minority Report. Who wants to have to reach out and touch a screen, and perform exaggerated movements to move a window? Actions such as this require mere millimetres of movement with a mouse. Graphical manipulation will quickly become tiring via screen-only work. People will naturally use whatever technique involves least effort.

Also, what about screen smears? And what would be the point of a seperate touchscreen keyboard? Reconfigurable, yes. But this will always be more expensive that a regular keyboard + fiddly and non-tactile, even with vibration feedback.

Touchscreen functionality is a good augmentation of the mouse and keyboard; brilliant for things like precise picture rotation and drawing. But don’t kiss your mouse goodbye just yet.