Know Your Touch Screens

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Ever since the Apple iPhone arrived more than three years ago, gadget makers of all kinds got busy replacing real buttons with virtual ones on touch screens.

A gazillion gadgets conspicuously touting touch have emerged in recent months in an attempt to benefit from warm-and-fuzzy feelings consumers have developed for Apple multitouch devices.

Marketers are preying on consumer naiveté. By emphasizing touch screens, they suggest that their products are part of the new generation of devices represented by Apple's iPhone and iPad. But touch alone isn't what the new generation is all about. Here's what you need to know.

What's so great about MPG?

The ability to touch a screen and have a system respond is not what's great about Apple iOS devices like the iPhone and the iPad. What's great about iOS gadgets is that they have multitouch, physics and gestures (MPG) together as an integrated user interface experience.

This combination of features is what Steve Jobs called "magical" (to the derision of critics). And I certainly wouldn't use that word. But what's happening is something of an illusion. But it's not an optical illusion.

By combining multitouch with physics and gestures, MPG devices create the illusion that the virtual stuff on screen is physical. Your mind accepts the physicality of the nonphysical on-screen objects, which gives you a feeling of power and control that's a little thrilling and maybe even a little addictive. MPG taps into your brain's hardwiring for how the world should work -- something mouse-based PCs don't do, and something old-fashioned kiosk-style touch screens don't do.

What you need to know is that many of the new gadgets advertised as "touch-screen" devices offer nothing more than old, kiosk-style poke-at-the-onscreen-button interfaces.

The difference between a real MPG touch-screen interface and an old school touch screen is like the difference between riding the Nitro roller coaster at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, N.J., and riding the tram to get from the parking lot to the entrance to the park. It's like the difference between surfing and watching a video of somebody else surfing. It's like the difference between flying an airplane and playing Microsoft Flight.

One is just a flat, distant and abstract experience, and the other satisfies your deepest intuition about how the physical world should work.

That's why it's absurd that gadget makers selling ordinary touch screens push basic touch interfaces as somehow in the same class as the interfaces of MPG devices. They're opposites. Touch screens represent the past, while MPG devices represent the future.

Here are the four general categories of touch screen:

1. Touch without multitouch, physics or gestures

Most touch-capable gadgets offer only the ability to push on-screen buttons. This capability has been around for many years on kiosks, ATMs and gadgets of every description.

Recent examples of kiosk-style touch screen devices include the Sony Reader Pocket Edition, Sony Reader Touch Edition and Sony Reader Daily Edition.

2. Gestures without physics

HP showed off a demo of what was supposed to be an upcoming product. Called the HP Slate, the device supported gestures and probably multitouch input, but no physics. The demo shows something like Apple's Cover Flow, but covers didn't flow. The swipe gesture advanced to the next album, but not with momentum representing the speed of the swipe, only a kind of prerecorded movement.

Wisely, HP pulled the Slate and will probably ship Palm-based WebOS tablets with full MPG.

3. Physics and gestures without multitouch

Sony is the leader in this category of touch screen. It's probably saving money on hardware and speeding up the software by abandoning multitouch. The newest devices in this category include X Series Walkman MP3 Players and Sony's Bloggie Touch HD pocket video camera.

4. Multitouch, physics and gestures

The newest product with full multitouch physics and gestures is the new Apple iPod Nano, which is Apple's first MPG device that doesn't run the iOS operating system. And, of course, the Apple iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch are also MPG devices.

But Apple isn't the only company offering full MPG devices. Not even close.

The first MPG device on the market (that I'm aware of) was the Microsoft Surface table.

Several Android phones have full MPG interfaces, including the Samsung Epic 4G and the Motorola Droid 2.

The RIM BlackBerry Torch is a full MPG device. So is the Palm Pre.

There are many others.

Frustratingly, product reviewers tend to be as ignorant about touch screen variations as the public. They know they like one screen much better than another, but most of them haven't figured out why. The MPG revolution is here, and it's time that professional product reviewers get more sophisticated about the vast differences in touch-screen types and experiences.

The reason all this is important is that touch without physics and gestures is old, dull and not that interesting, while MPG interfaces are the future of just about everything.

Look for the full MPG experience when buying new gadgets. And don't be taken in by "touch" marketing that's simply packaging old technology as part of the new generation of MPG devices.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at, follow him on Twitter at Twitter @mike_elgan, or read his blog, The Raw Feed.

This story, "Know Your Touch Screens" was originally published by Computerworld.

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