Hey PC Industry: Stop Being So Damn Touchy-Feely

Intel's CES prediction that there will be $599 ultrabooks with touchscreens on the market by the end of 2013 promises to shake up the computer market, giving the finger to the notion that Tablets Will Rule All. But do we really need to have touchscreens on every new computing device?

Ever since Minority Report came out in 2002, the tech community has been fascinated - nay, obsessed - with the idea of gesture- and touch-based interfaces. I guess we should be happy about this - if Minority Report was the inspiration, the collective imagination could have latched on to the notion of floating in liquid tanks as the optimum way to communicate with the machines in our lives. Waving our hands in mid-air is certainly preferable to being all pruney.

A Short History Of Touch

Touch screens have been around for a long time, naturally, so a 2002 sci-fi flick didn't just make up this technology. I was first exposed to touch screens at my after-school library gig back in 1984, when we upgraded to an online catalog system. But somehow Minority Report seemed to crystallize the impact of touch screens on our computers and smartphones - in much the same way that Star Trek was supposed to capture the collective imagination about space travel.

As tablets, smartphones and now Windows 8 computers are showing us, touch is the way technology is going. Like it or not, Microsoft's big gamble of an operating system makes that abundantly clear. I have to wonder, though, if the world is really ready for touch everywhere.

Not Everything Should Be Touched

I recently pointed out the potential foibles of moving to an all tablet-based technology, and David Pogue over at Scientific American points out some additional and very real interface problems with shifting to desktop and laptops with touch: Think "gorilla arms."

These physical issues of adapting to touch are significant, but I think there area couple of other reasons why touch should not be the be-all end-all for interface work.

First, let's be real: touch is just going to be one more thing to break on our computing devices. And if it's a major component of the way we interface, if it breaks, there's going to be a problem.

When my current interface devices - the keyboard or the mouse - fail, it qualifies as a pain in the butt-level problem. I have to get in my car and schlep over to the computer store, but basically problem solved. If I have a system heavily reliant on touch and that integrated interface were to somehow bork, what would I do, get a new screen? Expensive on a standard desktop PC and crippling if we're talking an all-in-one PC or a laptop/notebook device.

What Happens When It Breaks?

It might not be the end of the world. When an airplane's computer screen instruments (known as the "glass cockpit") fail, pilots still have the six analog dials (altimeter, compass, and the like) to enable them to fly and navigate the plane. And pilots get training on what to do if one or more of those instruments fail. So, too, should a touch computer provide alternative interface means if touch breaks. But if you've developed a routine using gestures and touch, stepping back to the "old" interface will lose you time and could be painful.

We don't hear a lot of reported problems about touchscreens , and I think that's more to do with the fact that devices like the iPad, Nexus, and the Nook are very much integrated machines. Apple doesn't have to worry about hardware design inconsistencies on it's iOS devices - because it knows exactly how that hardware works, always.

So what happens when Windows 8 is installed on a system that doesn't support touch? Or an incompatibility between the OS and the hardware driver suddenly pops up? Because as Windows users started to learn with Windows 7, driver incompatibility can be a problem, because Microsoft has never controlled  the hardware for the vast majority of the marketplace and despite the Surface, that's not likely to change any time soon.

Are Touch Screens Always Worth It?

The other big issue I have with touch: the cost. If indeed touch-screen ultrabooks are coming for about $600, then what would non-touch devices run? I'm hoping that the industry won't get so enamored with touch that they forget about the needs of lower-income customers. I'm not asking for another OLPC, but there's lot of people who could use a price break on decent computing platforms. Typically, touch-screens add a premium of about $100 to the cost of a laptop, which can be significant for many buyers.)

Cost factors in to the repair/breakdown problem, too, by the way, because if these fancy platforms bust, you'll have to pay more to fix the hardware.

Touch screens have their advantages, but let's not forget that like any technology, they have their risks and downsides as well.