I just read a great review of the new Microsoft Surface RT, which runs a cut down version of Microsoft’s new operating system, Windows 8.
Unlike Apple, Microsoft’s strategy combines the tablet with the PC. This is obviously sensible from Microsoft’s perspective: they have a PC software business they want to maintain. Microsoft may be hedging their bet on touch, but Canonical are doing likewise. The whole push towards GNOME 3 and Unity in Ubuntu derive from the idea that we’ll be using hybrid post-PC devices that are primarily touch based.
This may be true. But I can’t help but think touch is a compromise. Lots of people I know wax poetic about how touch is a much “truer” or more “natural” interface because instead of interacting with a computer via some intermediate—a keyboard or a mouse—you are interacting “directly” with the computer.
And apparently, a more natural interface is a better interface. This is the reason why we don’t use knives, forks and spoons or chopsticks but eat all food with our hands. That direct feeling of touch of interacting directly with your food improves the experience. This is why finger painting is considered the most natural and thus most important form of art.
Touch is a compromise. It’s not necessarily a bad compromise: it’s a tossup whether I’d rather have half the screen space and a physical keyboard or not on my smartphone. I have an Android smartphone, a Samsung Galaxy S2. One of the things I love most recently is when I discovered that in the Google Reader application, I could go to next and previous items using the volume rocker. Having found out about this, the amount of time I spend using the application has shot up dramatically. Being able to push my thumb to skip through headlines rather than swipe my grubby fingers across the screen is a huge improvement in UI. It’s almost like… buttons are pretty good ways of interacting with devices.
I’ve tried dozens of different on-screen keyboards on Android and iOS. When I’m sitting at my laptop, I can type 90+ words per minute. When I’m sitting at a tablet or a smartphone, I can pluck out 10 or 15 words per minute. In any other industry, if you said “here, here’s a new tool, it’s the future—you’ll get at best 20% of your current productivity when you use it”… you’d be laughed out of the room.
What are the things I do with computers every day?
- Write code.
- Write emails.
- Write blog posts.
- Write Wikipedia articles.
- Write tweets, Facebook status updates etc.
- Watch TV.
Almost all of these are done better on a traditional computer. Reading and watching TV can be done on smartphones and tablets, but pretty much everything else requires me to write things. Which means type things. Yes, I can get a tablet computer and a keyboard. Which is basically a laptop but with a worse user interface because the screen doesn’t stay up on its own and needs to be propped up with some kind of stand, and requires me to rub my greasy fucking fingers all over the screen to do anything.
I don’t write this to knock touchscreens. There’s nothing wrong with a touchscreen in many contexts. I have touchscreen devices. But the idea that my smartphone represents the “future of computing” is ludicrous. When I do use, say, Android or iOS, I’m astounded that I can actually do certain things. That you can do something on a phone doesn’t mean that it’s a good way of doing something. It is possible, in a pinch, to write an email on a phone. It’s painful and time-consuming. On a proper computer, it isn’t. Why do I want to do it the painful, time-consuming way rather than the speedy way? If the future of computing is “post-PC devices”, I’ll stay in the past. Because I actually like being able to do work.