Touching the future

A Palm V was the first touch device that I was the proud owner of. With a black and white screen, it was an organiser, a calendar and phonebook. I caught many envious glances as people saw me tapping the touch-sensitive screen with a stylus. This was in the mid-1990s and Palm had made quite a name for itself, so much so that the brand had become a generic expression for personal digital assistants, or PDAs.

Eventually my cell phone replaced the PDA. It had a phone book, a calendar, and various other applications that I used the Palm for, and moreover, you did not have to look up a number and then dial it. That was taken care of here, something the Palm itself realised when it launched Treo and other phones that tied in the redoubtable Palm software and ease of use, with a cell phone. However, by then the world had moved on, other systems were cheaper and more interesting, and you could migrate your Palm data easily to another platform. Many did that and so did I, successfully. The Palm V joins my Hall of Fame of “Great gadgets that I can’t use, or give up”, one that includes a couple of Nikon film cameras and the good ol’e Mac SE.

I use a virtual keyboard for my cell phone but a real one for my laptop, and I am typing this column on an HP TX 1000 which has a touch screen that operates with a stylus. Ah, the stylus. It is interesting that Apple, the very company that first introduced the stylus in 1993 is also responsible for it being phased out. The “Multi-Touch” experience became a reality for millions of users with the introduction of the i-phone in 2007. The touch screen became much more than what it was. It changed rules of the game, since the consumer’s expectations were sky high now. You could zoom photos with a pinch of the finger or use the flick of your thumb to spin through your music collection. In short, just use various intuitive gestures to get your phone to respond, no more stylus; you could handle the phone with only one hand.

Now everyone is looking for touch, be it in phones, desktop computers, laptops, or even television screens. Touch is attractive. It is also useful, and surprisingly easy to migrate to. In fact, touch screens are especially useful for control and automation systems, because they help to save workspace and simplify operations and save time. Thus operators simply touch the screen to monitor processes, or to give commands. Many people have difficulty in using keyboards and other input devices, and for them touch screens are a boon.

It is almost impossible to buy a latest gadget or use one which is not touch screen based—jukeboxes, gaming devices, kiosks, you have them everywhere. Even somebody like BlackBerry, an avowed advocate of the keypad, is now offering touch screen phones.

Both Dell and HP have introduced their latest computers with touch screens. Dell’s latest in the Inspiron family, is a touch-enabled Inspiron One all-in-one desktop featuring a full HD 23-inch WLED-backlit LCD display with built-in Wi-Fi, Webcam, DVD drive, and HDMI interface for connecting to television tuners, cable and satellite set-top boxes and videogame consoles.

For HP has been in the touch screen game since 2007 when Bill Gates introduced the HP TouchSmart, the first mass market touch screen desktop PC. The latest in its range include TouchSmart 310, and 600 desktop PCs, which have been well received.

For a long time, a computer’s memory dominated the mindscape of users. Random Access Memory or RAM was expensive and thus computers were compared on the basis of how much RAM they had, and later, on what speed it was rated at.

Hard Disk Drives were expensive and I still have my Macintosh SE which has the then state of the art HDD, a 40 MB Small Computer System Interface, or SCSI drive. Today we use 500 GB drives, and no decent computer has less than 2GB RAM. Now that we have taken the processing speed out of the loop, the next frontier is the touch screen and its integration with computer operating systems. Here the hardware and the software come together to give the requisite user experience.

Yes, computers are all about user experiences, not just hardware or software. That experience is what a multi-touch screen enhances, and this is where the future is. We have it in our hands with various small devices, now it will dominate our desks and our laptops too.

The article by Roopinder Singh was published in the Lifestyle section of The Tribune on September 28, 2010.

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