Time for a Multitouch Revolution

Nathan Edwards

A few months ago, I complained that the PC’s basic shape and interface has remained unchanged since its birth. But since I wrote that column for the May 2007 issue, two new devices have made drastic changes to the user interface. And the products—Microsoft’s Surface tabletop PC and Apple’s iPhone—couldn’t be more different.

In my March 2007 editorial, I told you why I’m waiting for the second-gen iPhone before I jump on the iPhone bandwagon, but I’ll give you the short version here: last-gen data speeds and a lack of third-party applications sucks. That said, I am super stoked about the phone’s multitouch interface. Unlike virtually every other touch screen I’ve ever used, the iPhone’s screen registers multiple presses at once. This not only makes typing on the touch screen easier but also opens up all sorts of new ways to utilize a phone’s interface—you flick and tap the screen to navigate and pinch it to zoom. After spending a few minutes noodling with an iPhone in my friendly neighborhood Apple store, it’s difficult to go back to a standard mouse and keyboard interface on my PC. It’s just neat.

Microsoft’s Surface tabletop PC, meanwhile, sits at the opposite end of the consumer electronics spectrum. I haven’t had any hands-on time with Surface yet, but I have devoured all the info about it I can find (online, the best is Popular Mechanics’s video review at http://tinyurl.com/3cecdk). Surface takes the same type of multitouch technology that’s built into the iPhone to the next level. In addition to incorporating interface advancements, Surface machines recognize the actual devices placed on their displays. For example, when you put a digital camera on the tabletop, Surface automatically downloads the images and displays them on the screen. If you want to copy an image to your cell phone, drop the phone on the table and drag the photo to the phone. Surface is still in development, but you can rest assured that Microsoft will have a whole host of Surface-like machines suitable for home use soon.

So what’s next? Unfortunately, we’ll probably see dozens of poorly working, rushed-to-market multitouch PC accessories designed solely to cash in on iPhonemania. However, I’d be shocked if Microsoft doesn’t integrate multitouch into Vista’s first Service Pack later this year, which should kick-start the first real mainstream interface advancements since the Mac popularized the mouse three decades ago.

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