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.