Multi-Touch: Not the Future

Just read a great article about the future of Flash on the iPhone.  At its core the article is dead-on: the issue with running Flash apps on an iPhone isn’t technical, it’s business.  Apple wants to own the multi-touch UI paradigm and is fiercely guarding it.  Flash apps, written for the WIMP (Window, Icon, Menu, Pointer) UI metaphor, will break the seamlessness of the multi-touch experience on the iPhone and dilute the value proposition.  I think that’s a fair and true assessment.

About a year ago I wrote about the JazzMutant Dexter: a brilliant multi-touch mixing device for use with most popular DAW software.  On publishing it, I realized that there are a great many people who don’t understand the fact that multi-touch isn’t a technical issue, it’s a UI issue.  A lot of the comments on the Dexter review heralded the imminent arrival of multi-touch displays for the PC, at which time anyone could just “mix with their fingers” on a multi-touch screen using their current software.  The notion is absurd, unless one happens to have needle-sized fingers.

There is a notion out there in the Big World that one day, multi-touch screens are going to replace keyboards and mice.  It’s true that iPhones – and their multi-touch user interface – are compelling.  But if you think that multi-touch displays are going to replace the WIMP metaphor, you’re gravely mistaken.  They can’t.

There are many small issues that prevent the market from moving en masse to multi-touch devices across the board: too much screen real estate is lost with finger-sized controls, the economics of writing software for a UI that is only a fraction of the market never seem to make sense, etc..

Let’s assume all these hurdles can be overcome.  They can’t, but let’s assume they can.  There exists a basic ergonomic issue that trumps all other issues – one issue that, by itself, ensures that ubiquitous multi-touch devices are not going to replace the current desktop model.

Sit at a desk or table.  The ergonomically correct position for a display is in front of you, such that your eyes line up with the top of the display.  If that display is a touchscreen, where will your hands have to be all day?  Up.  No good.

Let’s assume you have a keyboard, which is – and is likely to remain – the most efficient form of data entry.  Ideally, it’s low – just above your lap.  What do you have to do with your hands if you want to manipulate an on-screen control?  Move them several feet to the display.  No good.

Perhaps you want to go whole-hog, and create a big 30”+ table-top display with an embedded keyboard, so your hands are kept with the screen and keyboard.  Where are your eyes?  Down.  In what position is your neck?  Bent forward.  No good.

The fact is, there are powerful ergonomic reasons why it is useful to separate the display and the data entry device.  The best position for your head is up.  The best place for your hands are down.  Workplace ergonomic experts know this all too well, and have the lawsuits to prove it.

Head up.  Hands down. So where do you put the multi-touch device?

Back in your pocket.