Multitouch revolution

22 07 2009

Let’s face it, anything in the technology world that allows or uses the term “touch” is cool. The iPhone really got people interested in touch technology, and before you know it, we all want a touch phone, or a PC with touch technology. But touch isn’t something Apple invented for its iPhone, nope, touch has been around for quite some time now. EPOS systems (like our own) have been using touch screens for years. It’s just that, well, Apple has done what Apple does best, makes something sexy and desirable, then markets it as something wonderfully new.

Touch at home…

In the past 18 months, we have seen a number of machines starting to use touch technology. Though a little under-spec for their price, they do deliver great user experiences, and a great look and feel. The problem has been that these machines have had to have their own software overlaying the Windows operating system, to really get a great “touch” experience.

Microsoft though, through its Surface development, has spent a long time looking into and developing its own touch screen and touch technology. Surface delivers some great experiences and touch ability, and if you start searching the web for videos of Microsoft Surface or Surface Sphere, you will see some simply stunning demonstrations. Surface has no doubt driven Windows 7 to support multitouch experiences, at a native operating system level. This really means touch screens will take off not just in the workplace, but at home now…

Microsoft have taken the touch revolution further, offering touch overlays for standard monitors and plasma screens, effectively touch enabling these devices. For me that’s great, it means I can use my 42” plasma display unit as a touch screen to give demonstrations at corporate events.

Touch for business

Well we all want user experiences to be as good as they possibly can be. More importantly, we want users to be able to use software quickly and easily, and hopefully, without the need for lots and lots of training. Touch does open up new doors for developers, especially those who develop desktop applications, and rich web applications, using Silverlight. Why? Well desktop applications will be able to take advantage of the touch capabilities of the operating system and Silverlight, also supports touch, though essentially Silverlight is used for web experiences.

With touch comes new ways of designing software, which can promote simpler yet more powerful user interfaces and rich experiences. For sometime, our own workFile Vision product has been designed with touch in mind, with interfaces that can only really work well if touch is in place.

It’s worth noting that, just because Windows 7 supports touch, it doesn’t mean your applications will automatically work with all touch features. A limitation with Silverlight is that it understands and recognises multitouch events; however, it doesn’t understand touch gestures. If you want to support gestures, you’re going to have to write your own application code.

What do we need to support multitouch?

So what do you need to have in place to support touch? Well, multitouch requires an environment (platform and operating system, hosting application such as a browser) that supports and can propagate touch events. Windows 7 provides such support at the operating system level. Touch events are promoted to mouse events; therefore standard applications will be able to take advantage of basic touch input. But multitouch is what we want, we want to be able to size windows with our fingers, quickly navigate through options, zoom in and out etc etc. Multitouch is what we need to be able to do these things…

For web applications, you need to ensure your application host is also touch aware. Now at the moment, the only “multitouch” aware browser I know of is IE8. This means that it will support multitouch events and propagate these to the web application correctly. So if you have a web application written in Silverlight, you can take advantage of multitouch events and deliver richer and more user friendly web experiences.

Catch up…

I have no doubt that Windows 7 touch experiences will lead to more and more people purchasing machines / monitors that allow touch experiences. This means Apple will have to start delivering touch experiences on the Mac too. Touch issues are also present in web browsers. Because currently the only multitouch aware browser is IE8, the likes of Safari, Chrome and FireFox need to play catch up. For me, if my machine supports touch, I want my browser to support multitouch too!

More and more desktop applications will need to start to support multitouch events. The same can be said of web based applications, be they business or for the general public. This means technologies such as Flash will also need to start supporting multitouch events. Especially as Silverlight already does…

For many, multitouch support could prove to be a nightmare, however, for those that choose to implement it, will no doubt enjoy better end user experiences and ultimately, sales…

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