With Nokia announcing its first touchscreen phone today, all major manufacturers will now have such phones on the market or in the works, in hopes they will appeal to consumers the same way Apple’s iPhone does.
By next year, 7 percent of all phones sold will have touchscreens, according to a recent report from Strategy Analytics. Another firm, ABI Research, said that while touchscreens have been available for awhile, the release of the first iPhone 16 months ago “refocused the public’s attention on them as never before.”
It’s not only phones where touchscreens are finding a home. They’re already in popular GPS devices, and starting to show up in computers and digital photo frames as well. Microsoft says multi-touch computing will be part of the next version of the Windows operating system, due to be released by 2010. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
But phones are the first ubiquitous devices where touchscreens are now available no matter which brand you prefer.
BlackBerry fans can look forward to Research In Motion’s new BlackBerry Storm touchscreen phone, due out before the end of this year. T-Mobile’s new G1 touchscreen phone, available Oct. 22, runs Android, Google’s open-source software system, and is a competitor to both Apple and RIM. The G1 also comes with a slide-out keyboard and a trackball, things the iPhone does not have.
Whether the new entrants’ touchscreens will match Apple’s quality is hard to say.
“The iPhone screen is very intuitive,” said Tom Thornton, senior research scientist for Perceptive Sciences Corp., which does usability testing on devices like the iPhone. “It provides a real intimacy between the user and the device that just hasn’t been there before.”
Apple uses its Multi-Touch technology in the iPhone and iPod touch, as well as in the trackpad of its MacBook Air and MacBook Pro laptops.
With the iPhone, users can tap, flick and pinch the screen to get where they want to go. Apple says the Multi-Touch display “layers a protective shield over a capacitive panel that senses” touch using electrical fields from the fingertips.
Built-in keyboards a good option
Touchscreen phones that also come with built-in physical keyboards give the user more options when he or she is all thumbs — as in texting, says Thornton.
“I’ve noticed people who are used to using their thumbs have more difficulty with the iPhone,” he said. “If you’re used to using your index finger, you can still type pretty well with the iPhone.
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“But using two hands with the thumbs is difficult because of the way the keyboard is laid out. I’ve watched young people struggle with the keyboard. That doesn’t mean they can’t eventually learn to use it.”
Thornton said Apple has done a “fairly good job” of providing additional sources of feedback with the iPhone on-screen keyboard “to let you know that you’re using it correctly. When you hit a key, you hear a sound and the letter becomes larger on the screen so you can verify that it’s the letter you want. That’s a nice thing, but it still doesn’t replace the actual feel of pressing a button.”
While it is the iPhone that has brought touchscreens to prominence, Samsung and Motorola’s touchscreen phones “have been the most successful” worldwide, with 33 percent and 30 percent market shares, respectively, according to ABI Research. Sony Ericsson has the third-largest market share with 24 percent.
Samsung and Motorola are in the lead “because of their scale and significant presence in the Asian markets,” said Kevin Burden, mobile devices research director for ABI, in a recent report.
Despite the iPhone’s influence, Apple is among other handset vendors that are “essentially niche players” in the cell phone touchscreen arena, ABI Research says.
“We expect Nokia and Apple to ramp up shipments next year and start to drive down the price of touchscreen handsets,” said Tom Kang of Strategy Analytics in its recent report.
Touchscreen computers relatively new
Both HP and Dell are among the companies offering touchscreen computers, HP with its TouchSmart models and Dell with its Latitude XT laptop.
The new TouchSmart IQ804 PC has a 25.5-inch widescreen display, and touch can be used to check weather, play music or even watch TV on the high-definition monitor. It starts at $1,900.
“This is the first major generation of desktop systems that truly integrates touch that’s very intuitive, very powerful,” said Stephen DeWitt, senior vice president of HP’s Personal Systems Group.
He sees touch computing as a way of offering “simplicity” to the user, a way to easily access digital content, such as photos and music, as well as “the zillion pieces of information on the Net.”
Thornton of Perceptive Sciences isn’t so sure that touchscreen computing is right for everyone.
“As appealing as it is from a ‘wow’ factor point of view, I don’t think it’s going to be very practical,” he said. Think about it: As you’re typing, you’re using your mouse and your keyboard, and you’re making very small motions. Your arms are in a very natural position. You’re using your wrists primarily. That’s low-energy and very efficient.
“When you talk about reaching both your arms up to the screen to move things around, that’s not something you want to be doing hundreds of times a day.
“So I see the larger touchscreens being more for entertainment, and not so much for day-to-day word processing or surfing the Web types of things.”
Larger touchscreens are exactly what Microsoft is experimenting with, using its tabletop Surface Technology, which is being used in retail and entertainment businesses.
“Microsoft is trying to experiment with touch to get Windows down into smaller devices,” said Rob Helm, director of research for Directions on Microsoft, an independent research group.
“They had a tablet PC a couple years ago, and frankly, it wasn’t tremendously successful. Maybe Surface Technology will give them another run at it.”
Dealing with fingerprints
One of the less important issues — but still an issue — with touchscreens are fingerprints.
“It really is a big problem with touch,” said Dean Finnegan, founder and CEO of Pandigital, which makes digital photo frames, including touchscreen models. “That’s why we located the touch sensor on the edge of the frame’s screen, so that fingerprints don’t show up in the viewing area at all.”
Finnegan said Pandigital worked with the same touch sensor manufacturer as Apple and HP “to develop this very sensitive sensor that allowed us to be able to use touch through multiple mediums,” including glass and paper.
“I didn’t want the touch element to be in the screen area, the viewing area, because of the fingerprint problem,” he said.
Apple’s Teresa Brewer says fingerprints are not an issue with the iPhone’s screen.
The Multi-Touch display surface “is covered by optical quality glass for a superior level of scratch resistance and optical clarity,” she said in an e-mail interview. “If it gets dirty, just wipe it off.”
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