How touch-screen laptops can help the mobile Web

By Nathaniel Mott , written on February 21, 2013

From The News Desk

We’ve been tapping, swiping, and pinching the Web for six years, yet it still feels unnatural. Despite the rise of responsive Web design and the constant reminders that websites need to be built for a variety of screen sizes, there are still many websites ill-suited to touch-based devices. There may be some hope, however, and it comes from an unexpected source: Laptops.

The Wall Street Journal reported last night that Google has developed touch-screen laptops running Chrome OS, mimicking the touch-screen enabled Windows 8 devices developed by HP, Asus, Samsung, and others, and Google today confirmed the existence of the device, dubbed the Chromebook Pixel. Even though consumers have met both Chrome OS and Windows 8 with hesitation, the spread of touch-based interfaces to traditional PCs marks an important change in how we interact with applications and the Web.

Imagine what the Web might look like if it were only accessed via touch-screen devices. Buttons would grow larger, websites would have to adjust for various levels of zoom, and the entire experience could become more intuitive. Both Microsoft and Google, which operate the world’s most popular operating systems (Windows and Android) and browsers (Internet Explorer and Google Chrome), are pushing for this Web of the future and embracing touch on traditional platforms.

And, to their credit, both are doing so without obviating the mouse and keyboard. Microsoft released the Surface, its flagship Windows 8 device, with two keyboard accessories and has advertised those accessories as much or more than the device proper. Google is building both Chrome OS and Android, which Google chairman Eric Schmidt divided into keyboard-equipped and touch-screen devices. The keyboard doesn’t have to disappear in order for touch to rise to prominence, and no one — Microsoft, Google, or Apple — is trying to suggest that it does.

Put another way: Adding a touch-screen to a laptop doesn’t mean that a user can’t use their keyboard and mouse. But not shipping with a touch-screen removes user choice, unnecessarily limiting the way they can use their devices.

People are already used to interacting with a computer with their fingertips. The rise of iOS and Android has seen to that. By bringing that interaction to the laptop and making touch an option on every device, Microsoft and Google can light the spark that will lead to an even better Web. It would no longer be something that we touch some of the time, or are only able to interact with in a natural way. It would be something that we could use without layers of abstraction in between us and our content.

All signs point to a touch- and gesture-enabled future, from the rise of mobile and tablets to the surprising utility of hybrid devices. Eventually we might all see the world through Glass and use our brains to control devices, but before we get there we’re going to be spending some time with touch-screens. Much of the Web isn’t ready for touch-based interfaces, but between Microsoft, Google, and Apple, that’s set to change.