Apple’s got it, but you can’t do much with it. Microsoft’s got it, but you can’t afford it. And Dell’s got it, but you can’t have it yet.
Everyone’s talking about multi-touch. But what is it, exactly, and why should you care?
The word multi-touch has become shorthand for a wide range of next-generation user interface technologies that, taken together, will transform how we interact with computers.
The major components of this UI are multi-touch (the ability of a touch screen to accept many points of input at once); physics (on-screen objects that behave as if they have weight, mass, momentum and other physical properties); and gestures (the ability to send commands to the system by drawing a shape on screen).
Big deal, right? In fact, this combination of advances will deliver us at last from the old-and-busted WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointing device) UI we’ve been saddled with for the past quarter century.
If you’re still not impressed, check out these two videos. The best demonstrations of the promise of multi-touch I’ve seen are this and this now-famous videos by researcher Jeff Han nearly two years ago.
There’s no question that multi-touch is a giant and welcome leap forward. And although multi-touch is theoretically here, you can’t just go out and buy a real computer with multi-touch. Even if you could, there’s almost zero software available to support it. Still, the industry is off to a good start and the direction is clear.
The most familiar multi-touch devices are Apple’s iPhone and iPod Touch gadgets. Apple wisely “right-sized” multi-touch, barely using it at all, and sprinkling it like pixie dust throughout their new UI so it shows up only in limited ways in specific views. For example, two-finger resizing of photos — which combines multi-touch with gestures — works great, but most other things on the iPhone screen can’t be resized this way. Scrolling through songs has very limited physics — you “flick” your finger, and the songs whiz by, then slow down and stop on their own. On a real multi-touch computer, everything would be subject to multi-touch, physics and gestures, not just a tiny number of applications. And, of course, Apple is working hard on this.
Apple is wisely patenting various aspects of this new user interface technology. Traditional research into multi-touch involves allowing all fingers to simultaneously register on the screen. But Apple’s patent adds both palms.
Other evidence, such as a wanted ad for a multi-touch engineer, also reveals Apple’s plans to dominate multi-touch.
Meanwhile, Microsoft is already shipping a full-size multi-touch computer called Surface. The system is designed for retail applications (like cell phone companies and casinos), but shows that Microsoft plans to lead in this space, too.
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I think Microsoft came out first with a retail product instead of a consumer device for two reasons: First, doing multi-touch right is too expensive for consumers. Second, multi-touch is useful only if the applications support it. By shipping a vertical device, Microsoft and its customers can limit the use of Surface to running a very small number of applications.
Meanwhile, Surface acts as a public demo of Microsoft’s direction, and lets software developers work on multi-touch applications for a future version of Windows.
The successor to Windows Vista, called Windows 7, will feature multi-touch, according to a recent blog post by a Microsoft engineer. No doubt Windows 7 will steal from the Surface project. But that OS probably won’t ship for more than three years.
Dell recently got into the tablet PC business, and the company’s first offering, the Dell Latitude XT, is designed to support multi-touch, which the company recently demonstrated.
Before you watch this video, one caveat: After watching the thrilling multi-touch demos from Jeff Han, Apple and Microsoft, the Dell demo is sure to underwhelm. Dell actually makes multi-touch look boring, ugly and undesirable – quite an achievement.
Presumably Dell will offer a download sometime in the next few months that enables multi-touch applications, of which there are currently somewhere near zero. That means Dell, of all companies, will be first to ship a general purpose, full-sized multi-touch PC. And, if the demo is any indication, it will suck.
The likely winner of the multi-touch game will be Apple. I think there’s a good chance that Apple will ship an incredible multi-touch tablet in 2008 – basically a giant iPhone – and possibly even some kind of desktop PC with multi-touch. Given the failure of Windows Vista, and the embarrassing demo by Dell, Apple appears to have basically no competition in the short term. I think there’s a very good chance that Apple may leverage multi-touch to take even more market share from Microsoft.
And even though I’m a PC-and-Windows guy, I would welcome a spectacular move by Apple in this space. I don’t care who makes it. I want my MPC, and can’t wait to get my fingers on the next generation user interface.