Touch and the Computer Interface

The computer world is becoming progressively “touchy.” If you don’t believe me just ask anyone that has recently bought a Mac, upgraded to Apple’s new operating system, Lion (Mac OS X 10.7), or has played with the pre-release version of Windows 8 (due out later this year). Both of these operating systems, to different degrees, have made significant moves towards making your desktop computers behave more like an iPhone/iPad or Android device. Among many other changes this means that: their user interfaces rely heavily on a simulated touch interface analogy that uses your mouse and keyboard instead of your fingers (for now); applications that are more likely take over your entire computer screen; seemingly infinite virtual desktops that “shift” the displayed content as needed; and generally simplified interfaces that hide or in some cases even remove some of the controls resulting in a much more “appliance” feel to the whole environment.

None of this is new to the vast majority of us that by now are comfortable with smart phones and tablets, but Apple and Microsoft are now in the process of bringing this type of interface to your good-old desktop and laptop.  All signs are that both companies are fully committed to this change and in many cases you will not have an option to go back and do things the “old” way. For many users it has been, or will be, a jarring experience. I would argue that for most Windows users, the move from Windows 7 to Windows 8 will be the most dramatic in the almost 20 years since the introduction of Windows 95. While the introduction of Mac OS X 10.7 was less revolutionary, it imposed more changes on users than any since the move from Mac OS 9 in 2001.

Along with these changes both companies have and will continue to push a significantly different software development and deployment model than we’ve used for main-stream computer software in the past. Expect to see more and more “apps” on your computer which are in many cases much less expensive and “simpler,” are downloaded directly through a cloud-based “store,” and are developed by companies that you may never have heard of, or may never hear from again after buying their application. Don’t expect MS Office, Adobe Creative Suite, and other software behemoths to become extinct anytime soon, but I’m sure most of these will have to evolve to compete against, or within, the “stores.” As a matter a fact, just this month Adobe announced that many of their products would be available though a monthly/annual subscription model, and is already (timidly) testing the waters of using Apple’s App Store by selling it’s Adobe Photoshop Lightroom application there. As someone who has spent a significant amount of time dealing with academic software contracts, I cannot say I look forward to the amount of work that many of these changes will bring in the near future.

Of Course This Begs the Question, Why Now?

The short answer is the iPhone and iPad. The amazingly rapid adoption of these radically different devices has not been lost on the industry. For better or worse, everyone is looking to translate this success to their (your) computer products. Try and find a netbook or “traditional” Tablet PC in a local store, they are still out there but in greatly diminished numbers, and I suspect they are the last of a dying breed.

The changes that we already know are coming, as currently implemented, seem to make little or no sense with the current hardware that most of us usually use to interface with our computers — the mouse and keyboard. The changes in the operating systems, especially in the more radical Microsoft approach (for a change), seem to require some significant changes in how we’ll begin to interact with our computers in the future. The obvious changes include a real, rather than emulated, touch screen interface — just bigger than the ones we’ve become used to on our phones and tablets. But I would not discount the mention of voice and/or gesture control — think iPhone’s Siri meets Tom Cruise’s computer in Minority Report. Microsoft and Apple have to choose where to begin to make changes to how we interact with our computers, either in the operating system and graphical interface, or the hardware that we use to interface with the computers – it’s a classic chicken-and-egg problem. Both companies have chosen to start by changing the operating system and graphical interface, even if the new devices that we’ll use to interact with them are not yet apparent.

Most of us currently use our computers through a combination of metaphors to emulate the real world we are familiar with (desktops, windows, tabs, icons, etc.) and devices to control these metaphors. Without a mouse, Windows and Mac OS X would make no sense, and without a graphic oriented operating system, mice would be of little use. In the next couple of years we will see radical changes to what these metaphors are and how we control them. In general I think this will lead to a richer and more intuitive experience. I just hope Apple and Microsoft don’t take the “Appliance Model” too far, and give us an environment that is easier and “prettier” to use, but at the cost of removing much of our control.

In the short term what remains to be seen is what the new “mouse” will be, and how hard it will be for us set-in-our-ways folk to feel like this is more intuitive and richer.

About Pablo Yáñez

Pablo Yáñez is the Academic Technologist for the Sciences. He studied Geology at the University of Maryland (BS) and University of Arizona (MS), where he specialized in Geochemistry. He joined Information Technology at William and Mary in 2000, and has since worked with nearly all of the academic departments on campus in some capacity or another. Beyond his "normal" Academic Technologist duties, during these years he has been involved in several projects/initiatives including: the use of the College's Public Access Labs; the creation of the Center for Geospatial Analysis, the Swem Media Center, and many technology-enhanced classrooms; and in the review and planning of campus-wide software procurement.


  1. Pablo Yáñez says:

    Came out only a few days after posting this last blog…. but maybe something like this will take off in the future and become the new “mouse”, or maybe it will be something completely different, or maybe the keyboard and mouse will continue to rule.