Evolution Through Technology Selection

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You have to wonder whether the increasing use of tablet computers and touchscreens means we'll soon be back to the equivalent of a world that depends on stone axes and making fire by rubbing two sticks together. At the moment I'm doing my utmost to hang on to some semblance of advanced device interaction technique but there's a good chance that, in time, I'll also succumb.

This musing began when I noticed the gradual change in proddy-finger technique used by my wife with her new Nexus tablet. Previously, her frantic interactive facebooking and emailing sessions were rudely interrupted every few hours by the fact that the text on the screen became unreadable through a layer of greasy finger marks.

However, the fancy cover she bought to protect the device came with a neat pen-shaped, rubber-tipped stylus, and within days she'd become completely dependent on this. Now the screen is pristine after even the heaviest sessions of online social interaction. She tells me it's not only easier than using your finger, but more accurate and faster as well. And I have to admit that, after trying it out on my Surface RT, I can only agree.

But here's the thing. While I'm not the fastest or most accurate typist, I do manage to employ several fingers most of the time, and even a thumb or two for spaces now and then. And I can do it quite easily with the onscreen touch keyboard (in fact I'm doing it right now). However, watching my stylus-converted wife I realized that she was back in the world of one-fingered pecking using the equivalent of a pointed stick, rather than actually typing.

I suppose you could use a combination of fingers and stylus in the appropriate places, but that doesn't solve the greasy finger problem. Maybe the answer is gloves that have rubber tips of the correct flesh-matched consistency on all the fingers. Or just keep some wet wipes handy. Perhaps somebody already makes a cover for popular models of tablet computer that has a special holder for a packet of wet wipes.

Of course you could apply the "horses for courses" argument and say that some tasks should be carried out on a tablet, and others only on a real computer. During a recent discussion about applying Microsoft's Accessibility Standard (for example, you can't say "right-click" because there might not be a mouse) to a Hands-on Lab document we are creating, a colleague suggested that "nobody in their right mind would use a touch-screen device to run Visual Studio." OK, so basically I have to agree that writing programs in VS on a 7" tablet wouldn't be my idea of fun.

But many new laptops and convertible devices have a proper keyboard, a mouse track pad, and a touch screen. So I could just as easily be tempted into some proddy-finger action after typing a Lamba expression, rather than reaching for the mouse. Comments I'm already hearing from converted users of convertible devices is that it's a real shock going back to a computer where finger-on-screen action results only in greasy fingerprints. Jabbing at onscreen buttons with an index finger is much quicker than grabbing a plastic desk-bound rodent, or scratching around on a track pad to find where you left the mouse-pointer last time - and then manoeuvring it around the screen.

And maybe this transition to touch-screen interaction is becoming more obvious through its impact on the industry as a whole. I recently read that Logitech, best known for its keyboards and mice, went from a profit of $37m a year ago to a loss of $24m last year. That's a lot of unsold mice. Though it's likely that the difference was also caused by a reduction in sales of other traditional accessories that we no longer seem to need.

For example, instead of a monitor riser stand we now crouch uncomfortably over the tiny screen of a desk-located or knee-bound laptop or tablet. We don't need an ergonomically designed keyboard with soft-touch keys any more, we just get finger-impact injuries and stiff shoulder muscles. No requirement for a carefully designed mouse means additional wear on elbow joints as we scroll and point all around the screen. And the lack of a cushioned wrist rest is certain to speed the development of RSI.

Of course, evolution will soon resolve these problems for us. In only a few thousand years the successful members of the human race will have developed a long cranked neck, thin pointy grease-free fingers, and even a much larger nose to support our Internet-enabled glasses.

Those of us with small noses and fat fingers who fail to evolve will, of course, be easy to identify. We'll be the ones searching Amazon for sharp stones and abrasive sticks...

  • "by rubbing two boy scouts together."

    Seriously???  Not the best analogy you could have picked.

  • OK, so it is (or maybe was) a common phrase here in England, but probably it doesn't internationalize very well. Or I've just got old and I'm no longer "PC". To avoid any misunderstanding I've changed it...

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Evolution Through Technology Selection