There’s nothing quite like wiping smudges from a laptop display, especially when their origin can be traced back to your 3-year-old nephew’s drool-and-god-knows-what-else covered fingers. They don’t teach you how to explain the difference between a laptop’s screen and a smartphone or tablet’s touch-screen at press events, and a toddler doesn’t give a damn — sorry, darn — about what Steve Jobs said about “gorilla arm” and the problem with vertical touch-screens.
That’s what I thought about when Google announced the Chromebook Pixel, the first high-end Chrome OS device, or while I read The Verge’s editorial about the usefulness of touch-screen displays on Windows 8 devices. I’ve already written about how touch-screen devices can help the mobile Web, but this is worth noting on its own: We’re moving towards an all-touch future. Chromebook Pixel and other touch-screen enabled laptops might not be perfect right now, but they’re a step in the right direction.
Twitter was aflutter with derision after the Chromebook Pixel’s announcement, with detractors focusing on the laptop’s price (“Google wants to sell you a Web browser. It happens to include a keyboard. It costs $1300. Enjoy!“) and the hypothetical pains of using a touch-screen laptop without a touch interface. Never mind the fact that Microsoft tried to meld both touch-enabled and mouse-centric interfaces with Windows 8, to little fanfare — a desktop with a touch-screen must be modified for touch, damn it!
And, to an extent, the sentiment rings true. I wouldn’t want to explore OS X with naught but a touch-screen. But, as I wrote yesterday, that isn’t what’s happening. Adding a touch-screen to a laptop isn’t about replacing the mouse or keyboard, it’s about complementing them and supporting new methods of interaction. Some people want to be able to touch their laptop screen. Other’s don’t. The beauty of these new devices is that someone could ignore the touch-screen completely, if that’s what they want, or they could use it all the time.
Again, I think of the way my nephew uses the computer. He wants to use a computer to do something, whether it’s look at pictures of animals (he’s a fan of rhinos and dogs) or watch videos on YouTube. And while he’s doing those things he’s poking the screen, expecting an image to expand or a video to stop or start upon meeting his fingertip. This is the way he interacts with almost every other screen he’s come across, and so he carries the expectation to the ‘puter.
Moving past the status quo and developing new devices has a steep learning curve. We saw this during CES, when Samsung introduced its Evernote-enabled smart refrigerator, and the technorati pushed and kicked each other out of their way to mock the device. As I wrote after the fridge’s announcement, we are currently living in a time where companies are trying to figure out how to improve the things we use every day. Pushing against every little advancement because it isn’t quite what we imagined or seems silly will net nothing but stagnation.
Think back to just a few years ago when Steve Ballmer, BlackBerry, and others dismissed the iPhone. Then think to the all of the bile spewed after the iPad’s announcement, damning the device as “just a large iPod touch.” Now think about what those statements seem like today, with smartphones — which overwhelmingly look like the iPhone — and tablets overtaking traditional PCs. Many of us dismissed something new simply because it was different from what we were used to, and millions upon millions of sold devices later, we’re all eating our shoes.
In a way this makes it easier to spot devices that will change the way we operate. People hate “phablets?” Now they’re huge, and even the “the iPhone is as big as it is because that’s the best size it will ever be” crowd are entertaining the thought of a larger iPhone. Nobody wants tablets smaller than the original iPad? Tell that to the iPad mini and Nexus 7, which have both been extremely well received.
So when I see a large amount of people pushing against new products, whether it’s the hypothetical iWatch, Glass, or touch-screen laptops, I start wondering how long it will be before the product is considered mainstream. And then I think on how my nephew might use the devices.
I imagine that in just a few years he will start talking to every device in his life, trained by services like Siri and Google Now to hold conversations with the entirety of human knowledge — or the Web, call it what you will — no matter what device he happens to be looking at. Picture the wonder a young child will feel when they are able to ask Google about anything (and they will ask it about anything) and are able to get an answer beyond “I don’t know” or “Because it does.”
This, too, will be expected of laptops and desktops, of television sets and wearable computers. Hopefully this happens soon, what with the long-awaiting debut of Siri on OS X and the rumors swirling about Google Now’s integration with Google’s other products, like Google Chrome or Chrome OS. With WWDC and Google I/O around the corner, and Google’s launch of Chromebook Pixel now behind us, this year would be the year for voice-enabled computing to be baked into core operating systems.
I can’t even picture the devices my nephew will be using when he’s my age. Will Google Glass have gone mainstream, supplementing or even replacing smartphones? Will the battle between smart watches and smart glasses — or the head and the wrist, as I referred to it — result in a coup for Apple’s “iWatch,” or do the devices exist in harmony? Will scientists have just gone apeshit and implanted devices directly into our skulls?
I don’t know. But I do know that the answer to those questions will depend less on what I and my peers think of a device and more on what children are able to accomplish with them. It will start with touch-screen devices and voice controls and expand from there, and even if it seems nonsensical, stupid, or straight-up foolish to us fuddy-duddies used to the current computing era, what the children desire will rise to dominance.
Here’s to hoping they develop truly smudge-proof screens in the meantime.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pandodaily]