The Technology and Touchscreen Divide

It was a tuesday, and since I got home from the office early that day, I decided to pop into my son’s daycare to take him home. As I open the door, I see him (wearing a fireman’s hat) with two other boys, all crowded around a PC screen. They keep touching the CRT and my son says, “It’s broken.”

The touchscreen — and more specifically, the popularity of the iPhone and iPad — have changed the way we interact with technology. A few years ago, Steve Jobs was insistent that touchscreen computers just weren’t going to take off. But my three-year-old boy says different. And I think he might be right.

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Age Appropriate

Another quick story: a friend of mine works in IT at a nearby office. I popped in the other day to grab lunch, and while I was waiting for him to wrap up his projects, a coworker of his pops in the door. She’s older, super nice and politely asks him a question. “I sent an email out to a bunch of people, and at the bottom, where I put my name, I included this little sparkly graphic. That won’t give anyone a virus, will it?”

Congrats! You now have a virus! (Just kidding, of course.)

Congrats! You now have a virus! (Just kidding, of course.)

Time rages on, and people will get surpassed by technology; this has been happening for decades, so it’s nothing new. But this latest touchscreen revolution stands poised to truly change how we interact with our devices in the future. My son will learn how to use a keyboard and mouse, because that’s what we currently use in our home. But his preference will likely be for the touchscreen, because it’s already more intuitive for him.

The problem is that kids are already asking for touchscreen machines capable of doing their work. For some, the iPad works just fine and it’s no big deal. For others, they need something more powerful, but they want the touchscreen component. And Apple isn’t going to do that. Maybe.

A Lack of Touchscreen Macs

Which leads us to a potential problem. Steve Jobs and Apple did extensive testing on touchscreen Macs, and they determined that it just didn’t work. From a Business Insider article:

“We’ve done tons of user testing on this, and it turns out it doesn’t work. Touch surfaces don’t want to be vertical.

It gives great demo but after a short period of time, you start to fatigue and after an extended period of time, your arm wants to fall off. it doesn’t work, it’s ergonomically terrible.

Touch surfaces want to be horizontal, hence pads.

For a notebook, that’s why we’re perfected our multitouch trackpads over the years, because that’s the best way we’ve found to get multitouch into a notebook.

We’ve also, in essence, put a trackpad – a multitouch track pad on the mouse with our magic mouse. And we’ve recently come out with a pure play trackpad as well for our desktop users.

So this is how were going to use multitouch on our Mac products because this (he points at someone touch laptop screen) doesn’t work.”

But ultimately, it doesn’t matter if it works better or worse, people will demand that the system be changed. Microsoft has pushed touchscreen laptops for the past year, and they’re not going to stop. Then there’s Fox News, who changed one of their newsrooms to include mammoth faux-iPads. The revolution is happening, it’s whether or not Apple is prepared for it.

The Trucks and Cars Thing

I was recently reminded of the analogy that Steve Jobs made at D8 a few years ago where he compared cars and trucks to PCs and tablets. From the article:

Speaking for an hour and a half at the D: All Things Digital confab, Jobs said the day is coming when only one out of every few people will need a traditional computer.

“When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks because that’s what you needed on the farms.” Cars became more popular as cities rose, and things like power steering and automatic transmission became popular.

“PCs are going to be like trucks,” Jobs said. “They are still going to be around.” However, he said, only “one out of x people will need them.”

That was just three years ago, and today he might be right. Although I’m likely more of a power user than most, my wife could get by almost entirely on an iPad. After all, she’s checking emails, browsing the web and handling our finances. These are all things (for the most part) that can be done on an iPad. With a few more UI advances, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be a full solution.

But I don’t think there are as many people in her category as the trucks and cars analogy allows. I think that today there are many Mac users who do fall more into the power category than not. And even those that might be on the fringe would prefer a traditional desktop environment. But I could be wrong.

Solutions in Transitions

So how is this all going to go down? The way I see it, we’ve got a few different options.

Option 1: The iPad becomes a primary computing machine. Every year, the iPad grows more and more powerful, and it’s just going to get better. Already, my iPhone 5S is more powerful than the Nintendo 64 that we have on a shelf in our living room, and the iPad has more room for components. Give it a few more years, and the iPad may truly become the only computing device we need. And frankly, some could make the argument that the iPad already is all a person requires, and these bigger machines are just extra fluff (designers and video people would have something to say about that, but still). Additionally, if you could connect your iPad to a bigger monitor, that might solve the problem as well.

Option 2: We get touchscreen Macs. Although Jobs put the kibosh on the project years ago, things have changed both in upper management and on the planet. What was “ergonomically terrible” may be a hurdle that Apple can figure out. Maybe the touchpad goes down an iPad path with a visible display, or maybe some other factor that we haven’t heard of yet. By definition, this machine would have all the power of a traditional Mac, but with the added touch benefits.

Option 3: The X factor. There’s a third device. This thing — yet to be exposed to the public — makes both the iPad and Mac look obsolete. It’s a touchscreen machine, but it has the power of a full-size Mac with none of the iPad drawbacks. It connects to a bigger screen, has enough horsepower to edit movies and so on. It is the object to fill the void, as it were. What does it look like and how does it work? Who knows? I bet Apple does.

The Future is Now

Some people get technology, and some don’t. When you’re young (like my son), everything seems to come easy. He picked up an iPad and learned how to use it right away, but a woman like the one mentioned above might have a harder time doing the same tasks. The popularity of the touchscreen has made it easy for people to handle technology in a literal sense, but not everyone wants to be as hands-on.

What’s coming is a point in time when these two paths converge. Maybe it’s best to think of it the way that Robert Frost did before Jobs was even born.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.