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Sunday, 21 April 2013

Is "touch" really the future?

At an event for a PC manufacturer last week, there was a message that was displayed which said "Touch the Future."  For PC-makers as well as companies like Intel and Microsoft,  touch has become the new addition to their vocabulary and most of them are today talking about tablets, convertibles, ultrabooks, hybrids, smartphones and Smart TV's where in most cases touch is what its all about.  

This doesn't really feel natural yet.
Image: heavy.com
The problem is, not everyone seems to be thinking forwards.  Having had some exposure to what is due to come from various manufacturers, I can safely say some brands clearly seem to understand what they're doing but many others are sadly sailing along without any clear direction at this stage.  

Adopting touch on notebook computers for the sake of touch is short-sighted.  Most of these PC-brands need to ask themselves, where and how will touch be used?  I don't see myself using touch when working on an Excel spreadsheet, while replying to e-mails or writing documents in Word.  In a world when tablets are everywhere, isn't Microsoft Office-type work and e-mails what regular notebook computers being used for?

The answer is that, in most cases if I wanted to have any sort of touch functionality on a laptop, it would be if I was surfing the web because thanks to the iPad, the Internet has become fairly touch friendly these days.  Would the typical consumer be willing to pay a premium for a laptop with touch if they were only going to use that extra functionality to surf the web or would they rather spend that extra money on buying a tablet or a new smartphone?

I would guess in many instances, many consumers may opt for the latter.  Hence when research firms like IDC or GfK show declines in the sales of notebook computers, companies that manufacture or provide essential components for the PC industry need to ask themselves, what are they doing to understand consumer demands.  Touch in my opinion is a transition technology.  The future is moving well beyond touch.

If you look at some of the other trends we've seen developing, the PC industry needs to understand how can they apply those trends if appropriate to their product lines.  Examples of some of these are:

Gesture Controls
The television and console gaming industries seems to have skipped past touch altogether and adopted gesture based controls with products like Smart TV's and Microsoft's Kinect.  These when applied on notebook computers or variations of notebook computers, could mean that instead of reaching forward to touch your screen, you could just swipe away in mid-air to open an App or move your cursor.

Voice Control
KITT from 1980's show, Knight Rider.
Image: gogoj2.tistory.com 
We saw Apple's introduction of Siri on smartphones a few years ago and while it is far from perfect, voice control is an area that will gain importance.  Voice recognition technology has always struggled and even Siri isn't perfect yet.  Samsung and Google have tried to make an impact here but this is clearly still a work in progress.  Intel are increasingly making it the norm for most PC brands to have voice capabilities built into notebook computers starting from this year.  This could then mean that apart from dictating e-mails or documents to your computer, you could also talk to your computer when searching the Web or opening Apps.  The days when you start talking to a car (or computer) as David Hasselhoff did in Knight Rider may be not too far away.

Eye Scrolling
When reading anything today off a computer, smartphone or tablet screen, we always end up having one hand placed over a mouse, touchpad or on a touchscreen.  With the Galaxy S4, Samsung is introducing their eye scrolling technology that moves a page up or down based on the direction your eyes are moving.  They've also taken technology a step further so that if you're looking away from your screen, the movie you're watching also pauses.  This could be used in the PC world where when reading, the screen scrolls accordingly to the movement of your eyes but it could also black out your screen when you're not in front of your computer, thus ensuring your privacy.

Wearable Technology
This is clearly where the likes of Apple is going with the rumoured iWatch and where Google is heading with its Google Glasses.  We're yet to see where this technology takes us but I'm sure there are ways to combine this with current or future variations of the notebook computer especially if you think that in the future we may have PC's with foldable or flexible screens.
Dick Tracy's Watch. Is this what Apple is coming with next?
Image: newgeek.es

There are some PC-brands that are already thinking beyond touch.   I know this from discussions with them and those brands will no doubt be quite successful going forward as well.  The ones I worry about are the ones that haven't realized we're now expecting the sort of technology Dick Tracy had decades ago.  Some that haven't embraced touch completely, I suspect have seen touch as a transition technology and will probably move straight to gesture or voice-based technologies in the coming year.  For the rest of the brands out there, I wish you good luck because you will really need it.  

Posted by: Ashish Panjabi, Chief Operating Officer, Jacky's Electronics LLC