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July 29, 2010

The interface debate pt. 2: Touch of Class

2336784676_108d19f445GLOBAL – Last week, Rhiain shared my slightly tongue-in-cheek newsletter piece in defence of button-based phones. Most of you told me I was wrong (and worse). So this week, we have Rhiain’s spirited defence of touchscreen devices. “They are the future,” she suggests, which ought to be embraced. But how well do her arguments stack up? Let’s find out.

Touch of Class

Last week, Ian made a brave stab at defending mobiles with buttons. This time, Rhiain picks up the gauntlet in defence of touchscreen devices.

Touchscreen devices have been eagerly embraced by the public over the last four years with good reason. They are the future.

It’s claimed that if what you care about most is making phone calls, then a device with buttons is a better choice. Why would that be? Do the buttons somehow make you more eloquent? Do they imbue the device with some sort of AI that takes you directly to whoever you want to call? I don’t think so. It’s a red herring.

Similarly, it’s suggested that buttons are better for messaging. I would suggest that people claiming this have not tried a modern touch-sensitive device. Things have moved on a long way since your Palm Pilot in the 1990s. Modern screens are perfectly capable of rapid, accurate text messaging and email for three reasons. First, the size and resolution of the screen is much greater, so you end up with a larger keyboard than you get on a QWERTY device. Second, manufacturers have devised all sorts of ways to provide feedback, which increases your accuracy. Plus auto-correction works a lot better nowadays. And third, we’re now seeing the arrival of multitouch, capacitative screens, allowing for gestures and faster typing all-round.

But this isn’t what really makes touch screens great. The important thing is that the interface to your phone is totally malleable. One moment you might be drawing with a soft pencil in a sketching application, the next your finger is rolling a bowling ball down an alley. Application designers aren’t restricted by the hardware in any way: they can simply create the user interface that’s best for what it needs to do. The best examples here are games: useless with buttons, better with touch.

And because the screen is twice the size of your button-based dinosaur, you can actually see what you’re doing. Not just with games but everything. I can see twice the number of messages in one glance, view emails without scrolling and spend half as long tapping through my address book to find a contact.

I think the button brigade are simply resistant to change. The world’s moved on: we have colour TVs now. Mobile devices can now do almost anything; be almost anything. Don’t be afraid of change: embrace it.

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image credit: woodleywonderworks