But Apple's use of a trackpad raises issues of its own. One is the difficulty of moving a relatively fat finger in a confined space, which is why Apple keeps increasing the size of its trackpads. The other is that you need to use a laptop and keep it open so that the trackpad is accessible. That's great on the road, but not at a desk. A laptop's screen is too low for most people to maintain good posture, and if you raise the laptop to raise its screen, the keyboard and trackpad placement are off. So chances are that your MacBook is closed and its trackpad inaccessible; you're using an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse instead. Sure, you can open the MacBook and use its LCD as a mirrored or extended monitor, but it's likely your desk isn't big enough to position the open MacBook, your external mouse, and your external keyboard all comfortably.
I can easily imagine a day when you'll have a mousepad that doubles as a trackpad, so you have the room to maneuver your fingers and won't have the "outstretched arm" issue. Logitech's recent creation of mice that can work on glass surfaces makes such a dual-purpose mouse/touchpad more likely.
Why touch remains a tantalizing prospect
Despite all these issues, the promise of touch remains tantalizing, as I'm reminded every day when I use my iPod Touch.
Although the utility of touch for working in a spreadsheet or word processor is questionable, there are some apps where touch makes sense, such as with Google Maps or Microsoft Bing Maps. On IE8 or Safari, manipulating them by touch with zoom and scroll gestures simply feels better than using a mouse. It's natural to touch the map, as you would a physical map or globe. And if you've ever used Google Earth on an iPhone, you know how the desktop version feels like a pale imitation simply because you can't manipulate it as directly.
But there's a chicken-and-egg issue to resolve. Few apps cry out for a touch UI, so Microsoft and Apple can continue to get away with merely dabbling with touch as an occasional mouse-based substitute. It would take one or both of these OS makers to truly touchify their platforms, using common components to pull touch into a great number of apps automatically. Without a clear demand, their incentive to do so doesn't exist.
I'm hoping that Apple's long-rumored tablet based on the iPod Touch might create the demand, by bringing a touch interface to a device that is more computer-like and thus might stimulate touch UI development that would more easily translate to the desktop/laptop experience. That's a big "if," since no one outside of Apple really knows what such a device would do or, indeed, if it even exists.
But if Apple changes the game in the touch-based tablet world, that could give both the OS makers and app developers the incentive to make touch more than a skin-deep graft onto Windows or Mac OS X. My money is on Apple, not Microsoft, to be the one that gets serious about touch, if anyone does.
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