Blog Post

Touch-Enabled iMac: Do We Need One?

Everyone is going nuts for touch. My television has touch controls on the side of the bezel, virtually every new smartphone that comes out these days has to boast a touch-sensitive screen, and a lot of them are now showing off touch-enabled back cases. The Magic Mouse, Apple’s (s aapl) latest take on an interface device, also has touch controls, and Cupertino seems to be betting on the tech as a surefire winner.

But when is touch too much? The latest rumors, coming from the Chinese-language Commercial Times newspaper, as reported by DigiTimes, suggest that Apple will be launching a brand new addition to the iMac line in 2010 with a touch-enabled display. If the report is accurate, the new iMac would have a 22-inch screen, in between the current 21.5-inch and 27-inch models.

The report is based on a supplier called Quanta supposedly receiving the outsourcing contract to make the machines, with Sintek Photronic supplying the necessary touchscreen panels. The rumor is at least plausible, and even a likely next step coming from a manufacturer like Apple that has consistently done touch well and introduced it across much of its product line in some form or another. The question isn’t whether or not Apple will do it, it’s whether or not it should.

I get a tablet computer. I understand what that’s for, how people will use it, and how, thanks to mobility, touch controls make sense. I can’t say the same thing for touch-enabled desktops, except in special cases. For retail, sure, and for restaurants and other similar industry applications where touch has been used because it makes an exceeding amount of sense to do so, that I understand. But as I sit at my home office typing up this post, I wonder if I would derive any benefit by being able to control my iMac by touching the screen versus using my mouse.

In fact, I already sort of have touchscreen computing capability in my iMac, via a connected Wacom Cintiq monitor. Admittedly, you have to use a stylus, so it isn’t exactly the same, but I still finding myself abstaining from using it for anything but drawing and photo editing. Even the Sony Vaio L (check out the second “Con”) and other PCs already on the market with the tech built-in strike me as fairly silly. I’ve used them on display in Best Buy and the like, but that’s an entirely different thing from sitting at a desk and using it for many hours at a time.

Touch control will also be shoehorned into a number of different applications. Unlike the more expensive versions of Windows 7, Snow Leopard isn’t designed to work on a touch-enabled machine, and neither are any of the Mac apps you’d be using with your computer. I can see flick scrolling and image browsing being a bit of a boon, but not enough to merit the inclusion of the tech, especially when it would mean constantly having to switch from using the mouse to interacting with the screen in all likelihood.

Where touchscreen desktop computing has been introduced, it has faced questions about how truly useful and effective it is. Galen Gruman at TechWorld describes his disappointment with the Windows 7 implementation of touch in a piece that soberly addresses the tech’s current shortcomings. In this excerpt, he discusses some UI and feedback problems with the idea:

[O]n a touchscreen, your hand and arm obscure your view of where your fingertip actually is, making it hard to actually touch the intended radio button, close box, slider, or what-have-you. It doesn’t help that these elements are often small. And there’s no tactile feel to substitute for the lost visual feedback.

It’s far from his only strike against touchscreen desktop computing, but even on its own, it describes an issue so annoying as to set me against the concept of a touch sensitive iMac, at least until the next generation of OS X takes touchscreen computing as its focus instead of as an afterthought or add-on.

20 Responses to “Touch-Enabled iMac: Do We Need One?”

  1. I work at a supermarket and we have touch screen PC’s with Windows XP Embedded on them, they are dog slow and I wish they would replace them, preferably with Macs, with my experience, my worse-speced macbook easily outguns my better-speced dell, despite the the worseness :P

    Anyway, a Touch iMac wouldnt be bad there (might be a little big considering the current IBM touch screens are 14) but I was thinking Apple should make a Mac Mini with a Touch Screen LED Cinema display for this purpose!

  2. “keyboards = written language = humanity”

    touch screen = grunts and screeches = devolution

    Apes is the plan and these tablets will prove it?

    Sorry, couldn’t help myself. That said, there may be two aspects to this rumor. Perhaps it is a diversion by Apple, which Apple will never manufacture, but will keep the r&d departments of Asus, HP and Dell busy running down the dead end? Alternatively, remember Scotty’s Star Trek mouse moment? Apple does have patents on free air gestures, so imagine momentarily lifting your hands from the keyboard and mousing with hand gestures in thin air. No awkward reaching over and pressing the screen, although that may be supported too. Hard to say what will come, but that lode of UI research that Apple acquired from Fingerworks has barely been tapped.

  3. B Hanson

    OK so I’ve used an iPhone for 5 mins and it’s fun as in a novelty. I’m also a Mac user since System 7 and really if Apple want to stay the choice of designers and creative types then ACCURACY in pointing is paramount. Unless you’re just having fun, as in playing games or scrolling through pictures, a la Cover Flow. Still I’m prepared to be surprised once again by Apple.

  4. This off-the-shelf touch based system makes it easier to chase up cash register style applications such as used by busy wait staff in a restaurant, and touch based help/information systems such as used by tourists or shoppers/visitors, maybe self-service checkouts in libraries (with bar code reading), etc.

  5. Umm…but I don’t wanna touch it. I’m not quite sure as to what the point would be in having a touch desktop computer. Make a giant tablet or something. We’d have a whole family of touch-tastic Apple products then.

  6. I’ve never believed touch-screens are the end result, but rather a stepping stone towards a fully immersive 3-D interface. It’s the same way people felt about the mouse when that first hit (“what’s the point and click nonsense? That’s why we have keyboards!!!).

    I understand there may be limited value in a touch screen iMac but I do believe that as the technology progresses we will be relying less and less on third-person control devices like mice or styluses or even keyboards. Nor do I necessarily believe that’s a bad thing. Frankly, I hate using a mouse, and I think the 3D graphics world would benefit immensely from the ability to both project and manipulate graphics in true 3D space. We’re a long way from that, for sure, but I think it’s undeniable that a tactile interface is the future.

  7. “Galen Gruman at TechWorld describes his disappointment with the Windows 7 implementation of touch”

    Actually, he describes his disappointment with both the Windows 7 and OS X implementations of touch. Touch does make less sense on a PC style plartform. A mouse is fast, and you don’t end up with a greasy, fingerprint smeared screen.

  8. i used a touchscreen on one of the old hp touch 150’s (desktop computer) back in 1985. there was no mouse and no stylus. granted, the touchscreens now are different from touchscreens now, but my arm got really tired after awhile manipulating stuff on the screen.

  9. Snow Leopard isn’t designed to work on a touch-enabled machine, and neither are any of the Mac apps you’d be using with your computer.

    Certainly Snow Leopard doesn’t currently support touch, but it’s a little short-sighted to not point out that much of the UI elements in OS X were likely designed with touch in mind, from the start. The ease in which a one-button mouse can move, drag and interact with so much of the screen is evidence that Apple was considering touch interactivity a long time ago.

    Consider the following UI elements that are ideal for a touch environment:

    – The Dock
    – Stacks
    – Spring-Loaded Folders
    – Genie Effect
    – Dashboard

    And perhaps MOST important:
    Core Graphics and Core Animation… which are necessary to display the cool effects that are common to a touch interface. Those UI effects aren’t just eye-candy… They are necessary for a reliable touch interface with realistic UI feedback and they were created years ago.

    Let’s not forget that OS X supports Multi-Touch trackpads with all kinds of gestures. To say that Apple hasn’t been moving OS X towards touch over the past few years is to ignore much of the OS X UI.

  10. I think that touch is the way to go for small mobile devices (iPhone, iSlate, Droid, etc.) where peripherals aren’t an option. But for a desktop or even a laptop, I think that it will be mainly useless, and like you said, good only as a “Best Buy display.”

    I agree that there are certain industries that benefit from touch ability like restaurants and medical fields, but for the average computer user, it would be an extra gadget to add to the price of the already pricey Apple line.

  11. I’d love to see my 27” iMac with a touch surface … and no … not to have it horizontaly … but to fixate it somewhat vertically on a desk. Maybe in a 20-45 degree angle. Being able to move things around on the desktop literaly would be a realy nice thing for people that have to handle a lot of infomation.

  12. I am not a screen toucher. I don’t like when someone even puts a finger close to my screen. I don’t want to deal with the “yuk” factor of a touch screen device, nor do I want to look at someone else’s device that has been touched. It is just a personal opinion and preference. I’m sure others feel differently.

    • I’m with Laura in all this talk about how “cool” a touch screen computer would be for the average user. Besides making my screen look like the counter of the local burger joint, what is the use case? What new and useful functionality does it bring to the casual user? What will a touch interface really allow me to do that a keyboard and mouse can not?