Saturday, November 20, 2010

How to touch a Lion: OS X

To be quite honest, I'm a little worried about Apple's position on touch in their desktop platform, OS X.

Currently, touch on OS X is employed using Apple's proprietary blend of gesture-based devices: the Magic TrackPad, Magic Mouse, and of course the MacBook trackpad. That's all great, but, looking toward the future, the point-and-click method of input, while effective at its job, is beginning to look a little antiquated in the face of touch-based devices like the iPad. I'd only hope that when the next thing comes around -- when we do figure out what the paradigm shift would be in desktop computing -- that Apple will be on top of it.

In the October 2010 keynote, Steve Jobs spoke a little about Apple's position on touch interfaces in the desktop/notebook category. He said basically that those vertical display orientations don't work well with extended use. "It gives great demo," Jobs claimed. But he then went on to describe the problems concerning arm fatigue and extended use problems associated with that design. "It's ergonomically terrible," he said.

That all makes sense, and I admire Apple's ability to deny the status-quo in desktop touch interfaces, and that's not what worries me. Instead, I'm curious about the integrity of their current interfaces for touch on OS X. The MacBook trackpad, Magic TrackPad and Magic Mouse are great devices, but they are in no way comparable to interacting with the touchscreen on the iPhone or iPad. Apple says the best way they've found to get touch on the Mac is not through the display, all which orient vertically, but rather through those horizontal devices they already ship.

I wanna touch me some OS X

While the trackpads and the Magic Mouse that Apple ship do make use of "gestures," they are not "touch" interfaces like touchscreen displays. The software in OS X is still based on a point-and-click mechanism of interaction. So, I guess the argument should be whether Apple should rewrite the desktop OS for fingers. Well, if you look at the recently previewed OS X Lion, they are already taking steps in that direction. With the LaunchPad, which uses the entire screen to display app icons, its use of folders like iOS 4, and also the introduction of more intuitive fullscreen apps (doing away with windows and the tiny toolbar controls), the desktop OS is gradually gaining the user interface necessary for finger-to-display interaction.

I wonder if the desktop OS, in its current form, will ever use touch as efficiently as any of the iOS or Android handsets on the market now. For example, straight from the horses mouth, check out this patent from Apple describing an iMac that has the capability to flip down horizontally, presumably to solve the whole "vertical orientation" problem.

My, how we've grown

Also, while always pondering the next best thing, I simply wonder when the traditional point-and-click style of desktop navigation will eventually go away. First there was command-line interfaces which included nothing but a black screen and a prompt. You would then enter commands to navigate and launch programs. From there, the paradigm shift in computing came with graphical user interfaces, or GUI. Xerox had initially invented GUI, but it wasn't until the Apple Lisa computer was released that it had made its way to the mass-market. From there, the Macintosh perfected the modern desktop operating system, and every other OS and software manufacturer, like Microsoft, jumped on the bandwagon.

More than thirty years later, we've since grown into our modern OS's and coincidentally seemingly grown too used to the same interfaces we use to interact with our data. It didn't take long to realize that command prompts were antiquated, but now we're slowly realizing that touch, along with wireless mobility, is the way of the future.

And in that aspect, the future is already here. With the introduction of the iPhone, we witnessed touch, wireless and mobile culminate with a product that not only revolutionized the cellular industry, but also energized new ideas and catalyzed a new category of mobile devices like the iPad. Tablet computing is the new rage, and we may see that form-factor take as the reigning personal device after the PC.

Bring it 'Back to the Mac'

I have to agree with Jobs on the iPad. There is something "magical" about it. The iPad brings a degree of intimacy with the internet and your digital content that other devices simply don't quite offer yet, all of which is because of the touch interface, its simplicity, design and ease of use. So, how do you bring some of that intimacy to the Mac? Laptops, in their current form, definitely don't work for vertical touch, because the displays are too flimsy and have no support for the pressure required someone to press against it. Hmmmm...

However, with the new MacBook Air, they've taken design cues from the iPad hardware, so I guess that's a good first step. It's easier to, say, just throw in flash storage rather than a hard drive, giving your laptop a new "instant on" feature resembling the iPad. But it's much more to try and reinvent the OS. Although OS X Lion seems to promote a more app-friendly, iPad-like experience with the new Mac App Store, the LaunchPad and fullscreen apps, in the meantime we're stuck with the Magic Mouse to provide our desktop "touch" experience.

We'll have to wait and see what the industry will make of this, because I certainly don't have the answers.

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