There’s nothing quite like wiping smudges from a laptop display, especially when their origin can be traced back to your 3-year-old nephew’s drool-and-god-knows-what-else covered fingers. They don’t teach you how to explain the difference between a laptop’s screen and a smartphone or tablet’s touch-screen at press events, and a toddler doesn’t give a damn — sorry, darn — about what Steve Jobs said about “gorilla arm” and the problem with vertical touch-screens.
That’s what I thought about when Google announced the Chromebook Pixel, the first high-end Chrome OS device, or while I read The Verge’s editorial about the usefulness of touch-screen displays on Windows 8 devices. I’ve already written about how touch-screen devices can help the mobile Web, but this is worth noting on its own: We’re moving towards an all-touch future. Chromebook Pixel and other touch-screen enabled laptops might not be perfect right now, but they’re a step in the right direction.
Twitter was aflutter with derision after the Chromebook Pixel’s announcement, with detractors focusing on the laptop’s price (“Google wants to sell you a Web browser. It happens to include a keyboard. It costs $1300. Enjoy!“) and the hypothetical pains of using a touch-screen laptop without a touch interface. Never mind the fact that Microsoft tried to meld both touch-enabled and mouse-centric interfaces with Windows 8, to little fanfare — a desktop with a touch-screen must be modified for touch, damn it!
And, to an extent, the sentiment rings true. I wouldn’t want to explore OS X with naught but a touch-screen. But, as I wrote yesterday, that isn’t what’s happening. Adding a touch-screen to a laptop isn’t about replacing the mouse or keyboard, it’s about complementing them and supporting new methods of interaction. Some people want to be able to touch their laptop screen. Other’s don’t. The beauty of these new devices is that someone could ignore the touch-screen completely, if that’s what they want, or they could use it all the time.
Again, I think of the way my nephew uses the computer. He wants to use a computer to do something, whether it’s look at pictures of animals (he’s a fan of rhinos and dogs) or watch videos on YouTube. And while he’s doing those things he’s poking the screen, expecting an image to expand or a video to stop or start upon meeting his fingertip. This is the way he interacts with almost every other screen he’s come across, and so he carries the expectation to the ‘puter.
Moving past the status quo and developing new devices has a steep learning curve. We saw this during CES, when Samsung introduced its Evernote-enabled smart refrigerator, and the technorati pushed and kicked each other out of their way to mock the device. As I wrote after the fridge’s announcement, we are currently living in a time where companies are trying to figure out how to improve the things we use every day. Pushing against every little advancement because it isn’t quite what we imagined or seems silly will net nothing but stagnation.
Think back to just a few years ago when Steve Ballmer, BlackBerry, and others dismissed the iPhone. Then think to the all of the bile spewed after the iPad’s announcement, damning the device as “just a large iPod touch.” Now think about what those statements seem like today, with smartphones — which overwhelmingly look like the iPhone — and tablets overtaking traditional PCs. Many of us dismissed something new simply because it was different from what we were used to, and millions upon millions of sold devices later, we’re all eating our shoes.
In a way this makes it easier to spot devices that will change the way we operate. People hate “phablets?” Now they’re huge, and even the “the iPhone is as big as it is because that’s the best size it will ever be” crowd are entertaining the thought of a larger iPhone. Nobody wants tablets smaller than the original iPad? Tell that to the iPad mini and Nexus 7, which have both been extremely well received.
So when I see a large amount of people pushing against new products, whether it’s the hypothetical iWatch, Glass, or touch-screen laptops, I start wondering how long it will be before the product is considered mainstream. And then I think on how my nephew might use the devices.
I imagine that in just a few years he will start talking to every device in his life, trained by services like Siri and Google Now to hold conversations with the entirety of human knowledge — or the Web, call it what you will — no matter what device he happens to be looking at. Picture the wonder a young child will feel when they are able to ask Google about anything (and they will ask it about anything) and are able to get an answer beyond “I don’t know” or “Because it does.”
This, too, will be expected of laptops and desktops, of television sets and wearable computers. Hopefully this happens soon, what with the long-awaiting debut of Siri on OS X and the rumors swirling about Google Now’s integration with Google’s other products, like Google Chrome or Chrome OS. With WWDC and Google I/O around the corner, and Google’s launch of Chromebook Pixel now behind us, this year would be the year for voice-enabled computing to be baked into core operating systems.
I can’t even picture the devices my nephew will be using when he’s my age. Will Google Glass have gone mainstream, supplementing or even replacing smartphones? Will the battle between smart watches and smart glasses — or the head and the wrist, as I referred to it — result in a coup for Apple’s “iWatch,” or do the devices exist in harmony? Will scientists have just gone apeshit and implanted devices directly into our skulls?
I don’t know. But I do know that the answer to those questions will depend less on what I and my peers think of a device and more on what children are able to accomplish with them. It will start with touch-screen devices and voice controls and expand from there, and even if it seems nonsensical, stupid, or straight-up foolish to us fuddy-duddies used to the current computing era, what the children desire will rise to dominance.
Here’s to hoping they develop truly smudge-proof screens in the meantime.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pandodaily]
We’ve been tapping, swiping, and pinching the Web for six years, yet it still feels unnatural. Despite the rise of responsive Web design and the constant reminders that websites need to be built for a variety of screen sizes, there are still many websites ill-suited to touch-based devices. There may be some hope, however, and it comes from an unexpected source: Laptops.
The Wall Street Journal reported last night that Google has developed touch-screen laptops running Chrome OS, mimicking the touch-screen enabled Windows 8 devices developed by HP, Asus, Samsung, and others, and Google today confirmed the existence of the device, dubbed the Chromebook Pixel. Even though consumers have met both Chrome OS and Windows 8 with hesitation, the spread of touch-based interfaces to traditional PCs marks an important change in how we interact with applications and the Web.
Imagine what the Web might look like if it were only accessed via touch-screen devices. Buttons would grow larger, websites would have to adjust for various levels of zoom, and the entire experience could become more intuitive. Both Microsoft and Google, which operate the world’s most popular operating systems (Windows and Android) and browsers (Internet Explorer and Google Chrome), are pushing for this Web of the future and embracing touch on traditional platforms.
And, to their credit, both are doing so without obviating the mouse and keyboard. Microsoft released the Surface, its flagship Windows 8 device, with two keyboard accessories and has advertised those accessories as much or more than the device proper. Google is building both Chrome OS and Android, which Google chairman Eric Schmidt divided into keyboard-equipped and touch-screen devices. The keyboard doesn’t have to disappear in order for touch to rise to prominence, and no one — Microsoft, Google, or Apple — is trying to suggest that it does.
Put another way: Adding a touch-screen to a laptop doesn’t mean that a user can’t use their keyboard and mouse. But not shipping with a touch-screen removes user choice, unnecessarily limiting the way they can use their devices.
People are already used to interacting with a computer with their fingertips. The rise of iOS and Android has seen to that. By bringing that interaction to the laptop and making touch an option on every device, Microsoft and Google can light the spark that will lead to an even better Web. It would no longer be something that we touch some of the time, or are only able to interact with in a natural way. It would be something that we could use without layers of abstraction in between us and our content.
All signs point to a touch- and gesture-enabled future, from the rise of mobile and tablets to the surprising utility of hybrid devices. Eventually we might all see the world through Glass and use our brains to control devices, but before we get there we’re going to be spending some time with touch-screens. Much of the Web isn’t ready for touch-based interfaces, but between Microsoft, Google, and Apple, that’s set to change.
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s, well… it’s a little bit of everything, really. That seems to be a common refrain at CES, with many companies (the ones which aren’t selling smartphone cases) introducing hybrid devices that bridge product categories to varying degrees of success.
So many devices are becoming “tablets.” All-in-one PCs swivel and turn into monstrous tablets, smartphones continue to get bigger and bigger, and a few tablets have added a few buttons and a couple joysticks to become some unholy mix of the videogame controller and a 10-inch slate. One stroll around the LG, Intel, Samsung, or Sony booths, to name a few, should dispel any doubt that the tablet is the future of computing.
Of course, each of these companies have a different name for these hybrid devices. LG refers to its tablet-slash-laptop as a “Tab-Plus PC,” Intel refers to them as “Ultrabook Convertibles,” and both Sony and Samsung have their own, instantly-forgotten monikers for the shape-shifters. And that’s before you get to the gaming tablets, the gargantuan smartphones the tech press call “phablets,” or any of the other “Well, we added a touch-screen, so that makes it a tablet, right?” products on the show floor.
Other companies are building hybrids via software. Canonical is touting its Ubuntu for Android software at its booth, telling visitors about its plan to create an operating system that goes from the phone, to the tablet, the computer, and the television seamlessly and via one device. Microsoft’s Windows 8 is out in full effect as well, its colorful tiles and stark aesthetic appearing on all kinds of devices.
Exhibitors aren’t the only ones showing the rise of the hybrid, either. A fair amount of attendees are walking around with their iPad minis and at least a few have been using other “phablets” like Samsung’s Galaxy Note. Despite the “boos” and chants of “But look how stupid it looks when you hold it against your face!” from the tech press, it seems, people actually like big screens. (The phablet’s surprising popularity led Quartz’s Christoper Mims to speculate that Apple will release a similar device in the future, a sentiment I agree with.)
Some, like Farhad Manjoo, aren’t sold by the concept of hybrids. Manjoo cites pricing concerns, difficulty mastering Windows 8 and its split personalities, and the different specs required by laptops and tablets as some key barriers to these amalgamate devices. Valid points, though eventually the problem shifts from “Why would someone buy this?” to “If this is the device everyone is making, what else would people buy?”
Touch is making its way to all kinds of devices, and since we used the “smart” prefix to describe anything with an Internet connection, “tablet” has had to lend itself to all manner of devices. So the question is, if everything’s called a tablet, what does “tablet” mean? Will it simply become a meaningless word like “literally” or “awesome”? If smartphones are getting bigger and many are approaching phablet size, are they all phablets or are they smartphones?
Here’s a novel idea: Why don’t we just call anything larger than a smartphone a computer? Sure, we’re currently at the beginning of a new era of how we interact with our computers, but that doesn’t change what they are. Were they re-named after moving from the command line to graphical user interfaces? No? Then what’s wrong with keeping the name?
Touch is the future of computing. Hybrids, if the CES show floor and the Samsung Galaxy Note’s strong sales are any indicator, will also play a large part in our technological lives. But we can stop trying to come up with new names to describe these things and stick with what we know.
Suddenly today, the Internet is all a buzz with the prototype version of Android devices from the mid-2000s. Maybe it has something to do the millionaires at Oracle and Google fighting each other in court today over the money in our pockets. Or maybe it's because Android is so awesome that every little thing about it makes for a great headline. Probably a little of both. In any case, we figured we'd have a look ourselves at how things that are great go through changes. Back in '06, Android looked a lot like
the ChaCha BlackBerry. Pretty much all good smartphones did. That prototype phone was called the Sooner, and there are still a few of them floating around today. I wish I had one myself. That's a picture of one above, courtesy Mike and Maaike. At the time, that's what smartphone users wanted -- an easy way to see content, and communicate quickly via text. Hence the QWERTY. I've never used one, but I imagine for things like e-mail and texting they were awesome. My old BlackBerry was, and sometimes I miss it. But again, things change.
Then, in late 2006 LG introduced the LG KE850, also known as the LG Prada. It was a 3-inch capacitive touch screen phone that put multimedia content into a smartphone. After winning multiple awards for design, and selling over a million units (which was an amazing feat back then), things had to change. On the heels of the debut of the KE850, a little company called Apple decided to try their hand at a touchscreen based smartphone. That changed everything, for just about everybody -- including Google. The anticipated 2007 release of the Sooner didn't happen, and instead we had to wait for Google and T-Mobile to have a love fest and deliver us the T-Mobile G1, which incorporated the QWERTY with a touch screen. Other companies didn't rest on their heels either, phones like the HTC Touch Diamond and BlackBerry Storm showed up with varying degrees of success. It was obvious that capacitive touch screens could add multimedia to the user experience, and the modern smartphone was born.
Change is good. As long as it's done right, most of us can get on board. Heck, even old dinosaurs like myself now use touch screen phones with no keyboard, and secretly we enjoy it. It's significant because products that don't change to reflect what users want will slowly wither on the vine, and great engineers and designers keep a finger on the pulse of the users and deliver. Android, and all modern smartphone operating systems owe much to the pioneers of media-centric smartphones, and we hope things never stop changing for the better.
More: The Verge