Touch Feels Its Way Into Computing

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.