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Multi-Touch on a PC: Love It , Hate It, or Clueless About It

I often get a kick out of the fact that people repeat the same mistakes over and over again. When Xerox executives first saw a Graphical UI and a mouse they thought it was a toy that no one would want. Yet today Microsoft and Apple are household names and besides, when was the last time you saw the Xerox brand on anything? When Windows came out, folks just couldn’t see the advantage of moving away from the perfectly good command line interface and that no one would ever want this thing, now 100s of millions of copies later, Windows (love it or hate it) is the current dominant product and the MacOS, which sports a similar Xerox based interface, is the fastest growing.

And then there was Microsoft Bob which many thought no one in their right mind would ever want, and, well, in that case they were right; though I still think the idea had merit, it was just decades ahead of where technology needed to be to make the result acceptable. In the end, Bob was a bridge too far, but there is a good chance Bob 2 is coming and this time it may stick. We’ll chat about that when this product, which isn’t from Microsoft, gets a little closer to reality. 

For now Microsoft just announced the new user interface for Windows 7 and it is multi-touch. My expectation is that Apple will have something on the market around the same time given their success with the iPhone, but I’m particularly struck by the number of Apple fans that seem to think the idea is stupid. Granted many of these same fans thought Apple moving-to-Intel was stupid and we know how that turned out.

Given I’ve been using the HP TouchSmart desktop and their somewhat similar touch-screen laptop for awhile now I think I can say that, for some things, Multi-Touch (and touch in general) will be very attractive. 

The Advantages of Touch

Where touch works best is when you are manipulating objects or navigating through items. As we have seen with the iPhone, making pictures larger, scanning through them, and even navigating the web is actually kind of fun, and honestly more intuitive with Touch. If we weren’t already used to using a mouse and the fact that touch-screens have traditionally been too expensive and suffered in terms of brightness and resolution, historically we’d likely all have touch-screens today.

What I’ve found by using these two products is that touch can be addictive much like it has been on the iPhone. The one area that I discovered I didn’t anticipate was with the HP Touch Screen tablet. I could spin the screen around and position it to more comfortably to watch a movie (without worrying that the guy in front of me would recline and snap my screen in half) and then navigate through the movie with my finger rather than using the touchpad. 

HP created a special user interface for the TouchSmart and we used it as a living room PC where my wife or I could just walk up and touch the screen to look at calendar events or quickly check the web. Playing a casual game like solitaire was actually a bit more fun and I’ve been told that strategy games are particularly suited to a touch screen but never tried that myself.

Expected Technology Advances

Anything having to do with picture creation or editing also works vastly better with touch and I recently attended an event showcasing recent technologies out of Microsoft Labs and two address this change. The first was a drawing tool specifically designed for touch that was a lot more fun to use than any similar tool I’ve ever played with on a touch-screen, suggesting that, to work, much like it was with Windows or the Mac many applications will need to be developed with this in mind.

In addition, they showcased LaserTouch which was an interesting and inexpensive touch sensing technology that appeared to be easy to install on walls (to be used with projectors) and existing monitors (so you wouldn’t have to buy a new one). It seemed to work as well as any of the touch screen products I’ve ever used and, while they didn’t tell me the expected price, it didn’t look to have a bill of material cost that exceeded $25 suggesting it could be sold for well under $100 perhaps even under $50.

I do think, however, that touch-screens lend themselves to devices that come with screens like the TouchSmart, iMac, iPhone, and other integrated display products and that this technology could drive much greater interest in future All-In-One products.

Wait and See?

Because of the fact people just don’t like change but have been able to move to mice and graphical user interfaces, we’ll have to see if these new multi-touch desktop products are truly compelling or not. My own experience with the early and limited HP offering suggests there is a good chance people will like this interface and if it can be cheaply applied to existing technology it will be adopted much more quickly. We’ll see but having played with the iPhone and with the Microsoft Surface product I can honestly say I like multi-touch and can’t wait to get it on a PC.

I’m particularly looking forward to watching Apple fans flip flop on this as they move from thinking about the possibility of Microsoft doing this first to the very real probability that Apple will (they did hire an expert in this some time ago). That’s what makes this market fun to watch and clearly will make 2009 worth looking forward to. Until then check out this video of a possible multi-touch Mac one more time and tell me honestly, wouldn’t you just love to have it?

Rob Enderle
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Rob is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. Before…
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