Resisting the Touchscreen Blight

Last weekend, New York Times’ Virginia Heffernanhit a resonant chord with me in a wonderfully crafted piece eloquently relating why she hated the iPhone experience so much she returned her iPhone to AT&T, replacing it with a BlackBerry.

The nexus of Ms. Heffernan’s iPhone discontent was mainly an issue that I can identify with — her dislike of the Apple device’s touchscreen virtual keyboard. I also detest touchscreens, and even as someone who makes his living partly from writing about Apple products, when I get a smartphone (something I’ve successfully resisted so far due to the fact that the nearest 3G or GSM wireless coverage ends some 35 miles short of where I live) I would likely opt for a BlackBerry myself because it has a real analog keyboard.

There’s something that just rubs me (pun intended) the wrong way at a very elemental level about touching display screens. I’m extremely picky about keeping my computer and iPod displays, TV screens, digital camera preview LCDs, etc. clean and free of smears and smudges, and I recoil reflexively from touching them, so touchscreens are massively counterintuitive for me to almost the degree of a phobia. But it goes deeper than that. I had a pocket calculator and organizer for a while that required data and control entry via a screen stylus, and while technically that didn’t involve actually touching the display with my fingers, I still didn’t like it as an input method.

I’m a mechanically-oriented guy, and I’m most comfortable working with input keys that visibly depress when you push on them, and whose movement registers spatially and visually. Touch screens offer no typing feedback, as typo-strewn messages from my iPhone-user friends highlight.

As Virginia Heffernan notes, with her iPhone “To answer the phone, I had to touch the screen. Years of not touching screens – so as not to smudge or scar – made me wary. But I brushed the ‘answer call’ and up came fragments of my mother’s cheerful voice….I hunted for a keypad to call her back, but it was gone…”

Then there was something about the iPhone touchscreen “keyboard” that seemed to induce ineptness. “My right index finger – the only digit precise enough to hit the close-set virtual iPhone keys – seemed an anemic, cerebral thing, designed for making paltry points in debating club. I repeatedly stabbed to the right of my target letter. It was like being 4 again – or being 90. I couldn’t see, it seemed; I couldn’t point; I couldn’t connect.”

I find myself klutzy and error prone with touchscreen input, too.

I’m also of the same school of thought as Ms. Heffernan on what she calls the iPhone’s “know-it-all suggestions.” She observes that “the iPhone seemed to want to be more human, more helpful, jollier than I was! The vaunted Apple user-friendliness was exposed, before my eyes, as bossiness and insincerity,” in a word, “smug.” That assertive busybody dynamic is one of the characteristics I really detest about most Microsoft software, and unfortunately increasingly creeping into Apple’s software applications and even hardware (eg: the ambient light sensitive screen brightness setting on my new MacBook) as well. I like to think for myself.

What worries me most is that some rumor speculation suggests that Apple’s answer to the PC netbook market share challenge could come in the form of an oversized iPod touch rather than an Apple riff on the conventional mini-laptop form factor with a real keyboard and a screen that you keep your grubby paws off of. Personally, I have less than zero interest in even an ultra-portable computer with a touchscreen keyboard, although a tablet that allowed for stylus based handwriting recognition and command input might have some utility — so long as the option remained to hook up a keyboard and mouse when practical.

I’ll be keenly interested to see what materializes, but if it does turn out to be a touchscreen netbook, I’m apprehensive that the touchscreen blight could spread into Apple’s regular notebook space, as the non-swappable battery metastasized from the MacBook Air to the 17″ unibody MacBook Pro.

Don’t go there, Apple — please!

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