Sunday, July 1, 2012

What Touch Is. Why Touch.

What do you notice about mobile devices, especially the cell phone? It is the extremely small screen. An entry-level tiny 14-inch notebook can typically hold at least twelve (12) cell phone screens! Hence, what you can see on a cellphone is less than one order of magnitude of what you can see on the cheapest notebook. If you are using your cell phone to send and read SMS’es, it’s no big deal. The moment you use it to do something like reading a “usual” web page, there is a big problem. You are able to see only a small fraction of what you can usually see on your notebook. Until the iPhone came along, this stumbling factor prevented phones from being used to browse the web. It was just impractical as you would be spending 99% of your effort scrolling the page one direction or another.

Apple is rightfully credited for introducing touch zoom and pan. Touch zoom and pan was innovative and is the best solution so far to read a document that is bigger than your display area. Touch is a solution to a problem that problem was created as a result of a huge compromise – the trade-off of a decent size screen for mobility. We sacrifice a readable screen size for mobility. Hence, touch is not a virtue that is good to have on its own. Touch is a good thing to have when you have given up something important – screen real estate.

While touch is the best user interface for zoom and pan, touch suffers from serious deficiencies in almost every other area. The most obvious is entering text. You are now only a fraction as efficient in typing with touch, and the keypad obliterates half your already small screen. This is not too serious if your major pastime is information consumption rather than information creation.

Even a simple task such as dialing a phone number is harder with touch. How many times have you dialed wrongly or activated the wrong function because you touched wrongly? Touch has no feedback. You cannot not keep you eyes continuously focused on what you are touching. I now cannot enter the 4-digit PIN to unlock my phone without looking, something you can do pretty easily with a real tactile keyboard. Airplanes would crash very much more often if there was touch in the cockpit.

Hence, with a small cellphone, no matter how smart or how wonderful touch may be as a user interface, you cannot do serious creation work. When you are doing serious work, you need to enter text fast and with great accuracy. You also can’t be standing all the time. When you are sitting down, you can afford a bigger work surface.

While touch is a great user interface for a small device held in one hand, it is impractical when you have something on a near vertical screen like a notebook display. Those laptops that add touch serve no useful purpose except for the occasions when you hide the physical keyboard, eg salesperson doing a demo while standing. If you have the display opened in real keyboard typing mode, after five minutes, your hand carrying your touching finger will be too heavy for you. If you insist on continuing, be ready to call for an ambulance.