It's okay to touch


Since the launch of the iPhone, I've had an epiphany about touch screens that I'm sure many others have had as well: It's okay to touch the screen with your fingers. I have always hated styluses and any interface that uses them, including Palm and Windows CE, etc. But I was willing to give the Maemo platform some slack (that's the Debian Linux based OS and GUI that runs on the Nokia 770 and newer N800) because it was so versatile, but I still hated the stylus. Then the iPhone came out, and I used it for a bit, and then the next time I picked up the 770? I was amazed to find myself happily tapping at the screen with my fingers and realizing that it makes the device about 500 times cooler.

The latest rev of Maemo already encourages its users to use their fingers with special interfaces that are made to be finger sized. You can set it up to pop up a full screen keyboard, for example (which is equivalent to using the iPhone's keyboard in landscape mode in mobile Safari), and also if you touch the main screens' icons with your thumb, you get finger sized icons to choose your apps instead of the tinier, stylus ones. Not all the UI is made for fingers - there are some times when you end up having to use your fingernail, or pull out the stylus, but over the past month or so I've discovered that about 95% of the GUI can be used without touching the stylus at all - including all the native apps.

It's amazing how full circle this has come. In the early 90s the goal was get handheld gadgets to understand our handwriting. Then Palm came along with Graffiti and got everyone to write in a certain way in exchange for more accurate recognition. Then Blackberry came along a few years after Palm's heyday, and made the tiny thumb keyboard the big thing to have on a mobile device. Following behind both of these guys has been Microsoft, which predictably made devices with styluses AND thumbpads, in a confusing array of device styles that only someone from Redmond proper could truly admire.

When the 770 first came out, I have to admit, I yearned for a little thumb-pad myself. I thought the device would have been perfect if it had just had a slide-out keyboard to use, and was disappointed when I saw the N800 pics about a year before it came out, and it also didn't have a keyboard. Turns out I was wrong, and Nokia had the right idea - they just didn't take it that one step further like Apple did with the iPhone. Nintendo stopped short at the same barrier, including a stylus in the Nintendo DS as well. But Apple looked at the tiny keyboards and the styluses (styli?) and decided BOTH suck, and designed a new UI that didn't need either of them. I think that decision is going to affect not just mobile devices, but computing as a whole because touch screens rock.

Before the iPhone, I tried not to touch my screens much. I think all of us do - we smack people's hands away from our monitors so they don't get them all greasy with fingerprints, and try to use our stylus as much as possible on PDAs and phones that required them for input. Touching the TV as another no-no, learned from about the age you can pull yourself up, yeah? It's so ingrained that using an ATM sometimes made me a bit queezy, and I'd always opt to use the buttons underneath if there were any. Can you relate? But the iPhone made it *okay* to touch the screen now... And that has really opened up possibilities. It's not just the dual-touch capabilities, it's just the *permission* to touch the screen that's broken some sort of computing taboo we've all had for, I don't know, as long as the cathode ray tube has been used in daily life.

Back to the 770, now that I realize I can just grab it and use it without having to fumble for a stylus, it's become my favorite gadget to have away from the computer, bar none. Miker and I use it while I'm on the couch watching TV to IM back and forth, and make VoIP calls (we do a thing Miker has dubbed 'Armchair Survivalist', where we watch SurvivorMan and laugh at how he's pretty much incapable of catching a fish in any part of the world.). I use it to browse the web, read e-books, watch videos, and as a WiFi iPod. And I'm only scratching the surface of its functionality. Miker has his N800 all pimped out with Bluetooth connectivity to his phone for email, and maps, etc.

All this functionality has pretty much been there since I got the 770 almost two years ago (has it been that long?!?!) but the mental change in how I view how I need to interact with the device has made it a completely different experience now. Also, two years later, with the rise of YouTube and online apps like Zoho and Google Docs, it makes you realize how much foresight Nokia had in creating a Web Tablet, and not just another PDA, no? It's truly a brilliant little device. It makes me realize how sad and shortsighted Apple is being in other ways, when you go to an Apple store and see the horribly crippled iPod Touch, which could be just as great, and way more popular than Maemo devices, if Apple would just open up their platform. Instead they make a device with no speakers, and locked down so only the most intrepid hackers can use its potential. But I digress... The point is that now that touching is allowed, and this artificial mental barrier has been broken for good, I can see lots of interesting things to come.

Do you have an iPhone? Do you feel the same way? It totally changes how you view computer screens, no? I want to *touch* my PC Monitor in front of me now! I don't want a stylus on some Tablet PC, I want to reach out and *touch* the buttons on the screen in front of me when I want to. We've already modeled much of the WIMP user interface after real-world things like buttons and dials... being able to interact with them with our fingers is an obvious next step.

Anyways, if you're an ubergeek and you don't have an N800 yet, you definitely should go get one, or pick up a really cheap 770 floating around out there. It's a bit less powerful, but still totally a great little gadget to have to hack on. And if you're a hacker wasting your time unlocking closed Apple devices? Get a clue and use your effort in a community that appreciates your work, rather than one that can't wait to hammer it on the next firmware update.


< Previous         Next >