Maybe I’m just the kind of guy who demands to get my money’s worth, but my iPhone hasn’t left my side ever since I shelled out the full contract price of $500 for the 16 GB 3G version. In fact, I use the darn thing so much that it has paid for itself many times over if you equate time used to money – I probably owe the gizmo $20 at this point. What’s more, the variety of functions it can perform is downright amazing, most of which are made possible by the handset’s touchscreen.
So why all the love this side of Valentine’s Day? Easy: Because even as much as I adore the iPhone and the capabilities of a multi-touch display, it brings up a sore point. Specifically, that I can’t help but blame the handset for sparking off a disturbing trend that continues to dominate the consumer electronics industry. Having noted the popularity of the iPhone, iPod Touch and other mobile touchscreen devices and the huge piles of money ostensibly to be made aping them, manufacturers are suddenly slapping touch controls on every conceivable breed of device. And sometimes, despite modern engineers’ good intentions, it’s best to stay hands-off.
Why Touchscreens Are Growing in Popularity
Let’s be honest: Manufactures are taking advantage of the touchscreen hype to sell a boatload of prod-friendly products to ill-advised customers. While it’s a fair marketing strategy, buyers are shelling out more cash for needless touchscreen products when they could be buying higher-quality, less pricey products that offer greater functionality through traditional interfaces. Frankly, touchscreens don’t even enhance the gadgets’ interfaces half the time, a fact that’s often overlooked in gadget enthusiasts’ rush to cop the latest and shiniest new high-tech wonder. Granted, everyone has the right to purchase whatever they desire. But seriously – are most people really going to be content when the freshness of the touchscreen wears off and they’re left with a less functional device?
Mind you, touchscreen technology certainly has a rightful place in the consumer electronics industry, and opens up countless possibilities that external buttons and controls can’t. But the reality is that certain products just don’t benefit from having touchscreens in place of physical buttons – and some gadgets even desperately need to supplement these useless add-ons with external controls. Even the highly acclaimed iPod Touch and iPhone are guilty of nixing more convenient physical buttons in favor of virtual options for selecting the next and previous tracks. While both devices come with earbud headphones that offer owners the ability to switch songs, users shouldn’t be limited to utilizing Apple’s low quality cans to access basic functions.
The quickest way to skip a song when my iPhone is in my pocket is to pull the phone out, hit the home button twice to bring up a menu with pause, forward and back options, and then make my selection. That’s simply too many steps to perform such an essential function on a digital music player, especially when it could have been solved by simply adding an inconspicuous button on the side.
Times the Technology Just Doesn’t Make Sense
Nikon is one manufacturer that jumped on the touchscreen bandwagon too heavily in my opinion as well. In 2008, the company introduced the Coolpix S60 to the market, its first touchscreen point-and-shoot camera, which features a large 3.5-inch touch-sensitive display. The screen covers the entire rear side of the camera and its touch interface is used for all commands except the power and shutter functions. With an MSRP of $350, the S60 was priced well above similar non-touchscreen models.
You may remember Nikon’s S60 commercials featuring Ashton Kuchter. These ads attempted to sell people on the style and sheer cool factor of the S60’s touchscreen. In reality the S60 received poor reviews for its unresponsive display and for frequent inadvertent selections. These factors, along with poor battery life, lead me to believe that touchscreen cameras are only a gimmick at this point unless they are bolstered with the addition of necessary external controls. Touchscreens just don’t add any significant capabilities to a digital camera to justify a higher price, unless you’re buying the camera for the sole purpose of showing it off.
Virtual keyboards featured on cell phones are another frustrating aspect of touchscreen devices. Apple has even dedicated an entire webpage to directions on how to use the iPhone’s particular model. Keyboards like the one found on the iPhone are not entirely untenable, but definitely take some getting used to and limit top-end typing speed. Virtual keyboards also require more concentration when typing since you can’t feel the keys, while many BlackBerry users are able to type without looking at the keyboard at all. (Never a plus when you’re attempting to dial while driving…) Automatic correction software is also a must on virtual keyboards since mistakes are so common.
Phones such as the Nokia 97 and Palm Pre realized the restrictions of virtual keyboards and decided to combine the best of both worlds by supplementing their touchscreen interfaces with physical QWERTY keyboards – a major plus, from my standpoint. Physical confirmation of a pressed key is an important factor when typing because it rarely leaves you questioning whether a key was registered or not. Even with haptic feedback, touchscreen keyboards still have a hell of a time replacing good old fashioned buttons. Do you think a feat like the one pictured here is even possible on an iPhone?
Moreover, touchscreen computers also remain a gimmick, as the process of tapping the screen is simply too sluggish and tiresome to be used for anything but simple tasks. Touchscreens may look stylish in the living room and do an adequate job when you’re flipping through a media collection on your all-in-one PC, but in reality that’s about all they’re good for at this point. Check out this video from Engadget of an attempt to use the Windows 7 touchscreen interface. The system features some dazzling visuals, but it’s painful to watch the clumsy responsiveness to the point that I just can’t imagine that many users would have enough patience or endurance to use a touchscreen for all their computing. So while touchscreens may have a place in tomorrow’s media centers, don’t expect them to make their way too heavily into office environments in the near future. The keyboard and mouse combo is just too efficient to be replaced by a full touchscreen interface anytime soon.
Tomorrow’s Touchscreens: Worth the Upgrade Price?
Don’t get me wrong: I do believe that touchscreen technology has a bright future. However, the tech is definitely being forced upon products where it’s just not ready for primetime yet. And if touchscreens are implemented, they should be added alongside supplemental buttons and controls instead of in place of them. This would create a more streamlined transition for users touchscreen interfaces catch up with standard UIs.
But as things stand, soon the novelty value will wear off, and the market will be diluted with clunky touchscreen products. Knowing this, manufactures are going to have to start making high-quality, user-friendly touchscreen devices rather than simply relying on hype to sell shoddy products going forward. Otherwise, simply slapping touch-sensing interfaces onto unlikely gadgets won’t just prove an unfashionable pairing shortly here. It’ll also be one that the market’s (ahem) sure to find especially hard to grasp.