Sunday, August 24, 2008

Is this the year of multi-touch?

Several of us blogged that last year was going to be the year of touch. With resistive touch UMPCs, dual mode Tablet PCs, and then the iPhone, there’s no doubt this prediction came true.

Well, I think many of us are on board to make another prediction: This is the year of multi-touch. There’s the Dell Latitude XT Tablet PC with a capacitive/active digitizer which supports the pen and multi-touch, the announcement that Windows 7 will support multi-touch, Microsoft’s Surface Computer, and numerous one-of/homebrew multi-touch projects. Hey, even Google has a multi-touch library. Oh, and of course, there’s the iPhone (and other Apple products), with its multi-touch capabilities.

A New York Times article today lays out the case that we’ll be seeing more multi-touch systems in the near future too. As part of this trend they point to the iPhone, the fact that Windows 7 will support multi-touch, and the impact of new multi-touch hardware from NTrig and Wacom.

I have to say, though, that several things stuck out in the article that I think need some revisiting. First, in the caption to the Dell Latitide pictures, the NYT’s article says:

“A multitouch screen by N-trig, on the Dell Latitude XT laptop-tablet hybrid, responds to a pen as well as fingertips.”

Catch the phrasing? A laptop-tablet hybrid? Yep, OEMs don’t want to talk Tablets. The article clarifies the distinction in an even more confusing manner, describing the Dell Latitide XT as a:

“hybrid computer that’s smaller than a laptop but bigger than a tablet model”

Funny, isn’t it?

Anyway, as multi-touch spreads–particularly with the release of Windows 7–I’m predicting that Tablet PCs are going to be one of the early adopters. If Microsoft isn’t too careful here, it could wind up having its efforts lumped in with Tablets that no one wants to call Tablets. This is nowhere’s land and the start of a death spiral for Windows’ permutatation of multi-touch.

The other thing I think, which could cause a hiccup for multi-touch adoption, is Windows 7 itself. No one from Microsoft has talked about the implementation yet or the API, but if it’s not well done it very well may splinter and harm multi-touch adoption. Already we see NTrig go out on its own with a multi-touch SDK. Is this a harbinger of things to come?

Microsoft is also in last-place right now with its non-existent multi-touch SDK. There’s the iPhone, Google’s SDK, NTrig’s, and possibly one from Wacom when it launches its multi-touch digitizer later this year. And think about it, if Windows 7’s multi-touch is targetted to Tablet PCs, it may do no better than second place in adoption, playing second fiddle to the iPhone, which is on track to sell 40 million units this year. Tablet PCs are selling nowhere near that.

My point is that numbers of users and numbers of developers create a standard and if Microsoft’s multi-touch isn’t up to par, we could see so much splintering in the multi-touch market around Windows 7 to depress unit sales numbers, keeping the prices high, and the adoption rate even slower. Do we need another $2500 Dell-like Tablet with multi-touch? No way.

Wacom’s CEO hints at the pricing problem saying that for multi-touch to succeed “the cost is going to have to come down substantially.” Yep. This is a big problem. Pricing has been a problem with Tablets from the get go. And then there’s the whole UMPC overpricing. And if the Dell Latitude XT is any indication, we’re going to see price problems with any multi-touch, Tablet products too.

So here’s my take. For Windows 7’s version of multi-touch to really take off Microsoft needs to think more generically. It needs to think in terms of whiteboards and onscreen virtual instruments and onscreen keyboards and enabling multiple mice/users and multi-touch point of sale systems, and of course multi-touch on small, dedicated devices (phones being one of them) and so on. Microsoft has to think big and its implementation has to live up to the multi-touch dream.

And this leads to my last point about the NYT’s article and multi-touch in general: Living up to the multi-touch dream. As some of you may know I’ve been experimenting with a Dell Latitude XT over the last couple weeks, trying out the multi-touch drivers. And I have to say, the Dell Tablet doesn’t live up to the multi-touch dream. I haven’t had a chance to play with the NTrig multi-touch SDK, so I’ve been limited to the Flicks-like multi-touch gestures that NTrig provides. I’ll write another post that explains these gestures in more detail later, but let me say that more Flicks is not the answer. The feedback isn’t real time. It’s not smooth. It’s clunky. Apps like IE have to be tweaked with multi-touch in mind. If it’s not, it’s not going to live up to the dream. And is there anyone that thinks IE is going to be optimized for a multi-touch experience? Nope. It’s probably a safe bet that the iPhone is going to continue to lead the way here–for at least another development cycle or two–which is probably what, three to five years?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m agreeing that we’re going to see the influence of more and more multi-touch and I think the next 12 months are so is going to be a significant inflection point. However, will this period live up to the multi-touch dream? I think a big part of this is going to depend on what Microsoft delivers with Windows 7. This is going to be very interesting to watch. All eyes will be on PDC and the new Windows 7 Engineering blog, authored by Steven Sinofsky and Jon DeVaan blog.