A Touch of Genius

If you think today's touchscreens are impressive, you ain't felt nothing yet
Microsoft's Surface is designed to fit into a tabletop or counter

For the past couple of decades, using remote controls to move little arrows and click on strange symbols was a natural way to control computers and other electronic devices. Then along came the iPhone, and suddenly dragging objects around with a fingertip and making things grow or shrink with a gesture made mice and icons seem so 20th century.

It will be quite a while before the Magic Wall that Anderson Cooper uses to show election results on CNN becomes a feature of your home or office. But advanced touch interfaces, which let you move and resize screen objects with your fingers, are poised to become fixtures in homes and workplaces.

Basic touchscreens have been around since the days of the Apple Newton. They hit the mainstream with the introduction of the Palm and the Pocket PC. But simply replacing a mouse click with the tap of a stylus did not really change how we interacted with our electronic gadgets. The important new technology is "multi-touch," which can detect the simultaneous movement of two or more fingers on a display. This enables a range of more natural gestures, such as the two-finger stretch-and-pinch that gave the iPhone its initial wow.

One at a Time

With the notable exception of the iPhone, however, there are few devices running software that can take advantage of multi-touch hardware. The new Dell (DELL) Latitude XT laptop illustrates why this is a problem. It's a convertible tablet PC with a screen that pivots and folds so it can be used as a conventional laptop or as a writing slate. It has two touch sensors, allowing use of either a finger for convenience or a special pen for greater accuracy. This inch-thick, 3.5-lb. notebook, starting at $2,499, may be the all-around best tablet on the market.

When Dell CEO Michael Dell publicly unveiled the XT last November, he demonstrated the nifty multi-touch features of the screen. Unfortunately, those depended on some custom-crafted software that is not currently available commercially. On the XT that you can actually buy, running either Windows XP Tablet PC Edition or Vista, the laptop can only sense one touch at a time.

Microsoft's Tablet PC software has been out for five years now. But all it really lets you do is use a pen to simulate a mouse and enter handwritten text or drawings. That's useful in some applications, such as filling out forms, which has helped the tablet win a following in health care, higher education, and a few other markets. I'm also happy to say these screens look much better than their predecessors. The touch-sensitive layer on earlier screens tended to make the display a bit fuzzy, but that no longer happens, thanks to the hard work of component makers such as 3M (MMM) and Wacom. Yet without multi-touch, the capabilities don't go much beyond those of mid-1990s Palm (PALM) Pilots and fall far short of the tablet revolution Microsoft (MSFT) promised.

Future Reality

All that said, Microsoft hasn't completely ignored multi-touch. About a year ago it announced a new hardware product called Surface. Designed for the retail and hospitality industries, it's a big multi-touch display that fits into a tabletop or counter. Surface just made its public debut at a handful of AT&T (T) stores, where customers can use hand gestures to peruse maps showing cellular coverage and compare handsets and wireless plans.

Multi-touch is creeping into other products as well. The latest versions of Apple's MacBook Pro and Air notebooks support multi-touch gestures on an oversize touchpad. This is an improvement over the traditional touchpad; you can, for example, use pinch-and-stretch to resize windows, as on the iPhone. But much as I appreciated the new touchpad, using it is nothing like touching and manipulating objects on the screen. There have been persistent rumors of a touch-enabled Mac notebook or tablet, either of which could be a really exciting innovation. Apple (AAPL), as usual, refuses to talk about its future products.

It has taken only six years for multi-touch displays to go from science-fiction special effects in the movie Minority Report to at least limited reality. It's up to the software companies to take us the rest of the way.

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