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October 29, 2008

Filed under: tech»i_slash_o

Touch of Evil

I'm sick of touchscreens.

I'm sick of having to wipe finger grease off the screen, or trying to fend off scratches. When a physical component like a button, switch, or key wears, it lends character. When a display component falls prey to entropy, it becomes a single point of failure that degrades the whole user experience. Not to mention that I'm tired of having to look "around" my own hand to see what's going on.

I'm sick of watching other people use finger-based touchscreens. Everyone adopts the same posture: back hunched, one hand cradling the device, the other hovering over it with fingers splayed out, a single digit prodding the display like an inept fingerpainting. It looks beyond stupid. The only competition in the technology-as-humilation contest are those bluetooth earpieces that make cell phone conversations look like schizophrenia.

But I'm also sick of stylus-based screens. The advantage of a stylus is that it lets you communicate with the machine using the time-honored method of actual writing. Unfortunately, it's invariably used with devices that are way too small to write actual words. They inevitably have to resort to glyph-based alphabet systems (I still have Palm's Graffiti stuck in my head), ask you to cram your writing into a tiny space, or resort to the horror of software keyboards.

What else am I sick of? Oh, right, the loss of tactile feedback. The reason that hardware controls are still highly regarded in the music industry is that there's just something nice about pressing an actual button. I like being able to feel my way over the keypad on my phone, or play a game without having to watch my hands out of the corner of my eye. It's ironic that the sense of touch is completely neglected on interfaces of the same name. And haptic feedback--vibration when using on-screen controls--is no kind of compensation. It's a clever idea that completely fails to feel natural.

I'm sick of the hype around multitouch. Congratulations, you've made the device unusable one-handed, and you've created a solution without a problem. There was a Surface table at the RNC that was showing off a set of multi-touch features. It was one of the most blatantly useless things I'd ever seen, with cues like "put one hand on the table, then move the other to tilt." Likewise, while I understand the general theory of pinching and pulling for zoom on, say, web pages, it'd be a lot less necessary if the browser were smart enough to reflow the page for the screen in the first place.

And most of all, I'm sick of the now-common requests for every new product to be touch-capable, without which capability the chattering classes on the Internet's gadget sites will roundly pan it. The crowning jewel of these is the insistence that the Kindle should have had a touchscreen. Even were it technically feasible, why? Why would you want a touch mechanism on a screen with a .5sec refresh rate? Why would that make it a better experience than the existing controls? It's supposed to simulate the paper reading experience--do you run your filthy paws over ever inch of your actual books? What are you, five years old? Get a grip, people.

The real problem, of course, is not with touchscreens. It's that the tech community tends to lock onto these kinds of features, which are hailed as the solution to every problem, and then demand them even when they make no sense at all. Remember when we were all going to be using thin clients? A decade later, Google Docs is still as good as that gets--and it's not very good. Or when Second Life was the future of the digital economy? Haven't heard much about them lately. Or hey, how about municipal WiFi? Java on the desktop? Bluetooth replacing USB?

As bad as general-interest reporting is nowadays--and it is often very, very bad--tech reporting is probably worse, because it is driven so heavily by these kinds of fads. Everyone wants to be a personality, and everyone wants to be the person who's on top of the new, hot thing. It's the hipsterization of tech. But there is reason to think that some ideas that have worked for a long time--like the separation of physical controls from display surfaces--should continue to be respected.

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