Blog Post

Touch Feels Its Way Into Computing

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

Years from now, will we look back at the iPhone and touch-enabled Windows 7 and blame them for the thin film of muck covering our screens and the thick layer of skin on our fingertips? Yesterday it was the latest iPhone, and today Hewlett-Packard announced a $1,299 all-in-one touchscreen home PC.

Look, I know Bill Gates has a vision for touch and speech navigation, and I’ve already admitted that touch is pretty compelling on a mobile phone, but when it comes to the PC, who over the age of five wants to touch the screen? Check out the photo of the little girl gliding her little digits across the new desktop PC. Touch is a cool idea for phones and other devices that aren’t on display or have large screens, but as a UI for a PC, I tend to think we still need something standing between us and the monitor.

That being said, touch is only going to become more prevalent. HP said last year’s TouchSmart PCs were so successful that they helped goose slowing desktop sales. HP uses the touchscreen capabilities in Windows Vista and also has written its own software, which includes writing notes in a calendar, accessing weather and the ability to flip through photos quickly. It’s more than navigation; it’s like an electronic message board for the family. However, third-party applications that take further advantage of touch are still few and far between. An HP spokeswoman didn’t give any additional information, but said the company is open to working with third-party developers of touch applications and that more details will follow.

The hope is that once touch becomes enabled in more devices, programs that take advantage of it will emerge. Everything from fun apps such as putting together an animated jigsaw puzzle to mimicking the turning of a page when scrolling through a web site could be fun. Right now there’s little to make it valuable beyond device-specific applications such as web browsing on the iPhone or photo flipping on the HP PC.

Touch could help create a simple UI for controlling a connected home through one computer, managing everything from lighting to HVAC. And that is most likely where touch will become important. Not for multipurpose PCs, but for more utilitarian tasks such as a family calendar embedded into a refrigerator where a keyboard might not be practical, or a home security system that’s integrated with heating and cooling and managed in one place. Touch allows for a less complicated software interface that might actually encourage you to program your thermostat.

The building blocks are already in place, with everything from higher-end sensors to enable truly transparent screens for less to the manufacturing of large-scale displays dropping in price. HP didn’t disclose their touchscreen hardware providers, but Synaptics and Cypress Semiconductor have products that can be used to build touchscreens.

Cheaper hardware moves touch where it belongs, inside appliances or in specialty objects such as the Surface table, rather than as an interface on a device you use for work and sometimes as a TV. Touch might enable advanced computing in places where it’s sorely needed and provide added simplicity much like it did on the iPhone. Just keep it it off my desktop, please.

17 Responses to “Touch Feels Its Way Into Computing”

  1. fermata

    Ha, I dated an IT geek who’d go apeshit if I touched his monitor! I’m still conditioned to keep my fingers off the screen & always jump a little if someone else puts his/her mitts on mine.

  2. I’ve programmed industrial touch screen systems. Kind of like of light curtains – cool to look at, often sucky to use. Touchscreen data entry is a PITA (one reason I like my Centro – real buttons!).

    OTOH, I think touchscreen interface, especially multi-touch, could be very useful in programs like Photoshop and 3-D (Solidworks & other MCAD, Google SketchUp, Google Earth, etc).

    I would like to see a lot more User Interface innovations going on – the mouse & keyboard is great for data entry and general purpose use, but specialized UI’s could be much better for specific tasks.

  3. austinandrew

    Personally, when my grocery store figures out how to get the signature block on the credit card reader to actually record my signature well, I’ll start believing there’s a future in touch screens :)

  4. Stacey, I agree completely. For the typical desktop user touch screen would never be used and would only raise the cost of the machine.

    The touch screen technology definitely has some great applications in other areas such as the media manager coffee table or digital signage. We’ve already started integrating it into our digital signage platform and hope to roll it out into kiosks soon too:

  5. ronald

    You got it right in pointing to appliance like application, where it works the best for now.
    Just think about having 20-3o appliance like applications running in different work(context) spaces. How much simpler could the interface be? You would also have to give up to think about email or calendar as an application, as used today. Today’s use would just be the aggregation of contexts driven sub systems. All of this has to be created for _you_ and your _changing_ contexts, therefore programming has to be automated first. And I think we have nailed that, give us 6 mth. we got the math, now we need to implement it.

  6. I don’t think touch will ever be mainstream for “traditional” desktops and laptops. You mention the “film” and fingerprints, which drive me crazy on my LCD HDTV (kids). But another consideration is the “reach” needed to use a touch screen.

    As big 20+ inch HD displays become more common, who wants to sit 18″ away from the screen so you can easily touch it? Just look at the picture in the post, and how close the girl is to the screen. Imagine doing that for 8 hours straight for your day job. I’d rather sit 3+ feet away and use my wireless mouse and keyboard.

    Touch screens are sure to invade individual gadgets as you say, and may become a feature on many monitors, but I can’t imagine it being a permanent replacement for my trusty wireless mouse.

  7. I wonder if this is a paradigm we’ll get used to, though. As a teenager, I was given a Windows CE “palmtop” before I bought my own laptop. When I finally did get a laptop, I can’t tell you how many times I’d tap the corner of the screen and wonder for a second why the Start menu didn’t pop up. I didn’t realize how much I used the touch screen until it was gone.

    I’ve found that even slight increases in the speed of a task add up (e.g. Opera’s “Paste and Go” for the address bar), and directly clicking something instead of first moving a cursor can become habit-forming. I’m not going to rule out a desktop touch screen quite yet.

  8. I agree that touch doesn’t seem like a very practical (or functional) form of input for a lot of applications. I wonder why it’s seen as the big thing right now rather than voice, which has made great strides. Using voice would provide a lot more flexibility.