No Turning Back: Tablets and the Era of Touch Computing

Ben Bajarin is the director of consumer-technology analysis and research at Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market intelligence firm in Silicon Valley.

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In June of last year, I wrote a column outlining why I believe the tablet computing platform represents the future of computing. In this column, I want to build upon the premise I laid out, which is largely based around the touch computing paradigm.

Due to my father’s 30+ year history in the computing industry, I was fortunate to grow up in a home with computers. I don’t really remember a time without computers. In fifth grade, I was the computer tech lab assistant and provided technical support to the other students. We had a lab with 20 or so IBM PS/2s and I was the only one on the campus who knew how to troubleshoot DOS, so the job of maintaining the machines fell to me. When I was growing up (and even up until recently) computer literacy was a skill everyone was pushing.

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What strikes me today about watching kids, elderly adults and even consumers in emerging markets who experience tablets for the first time is how natural it is for them to pick up a tablet and start computing. The mouse and keyboard present a steep learning curve, whereas touch computing is natural and makes computing more approachable.

A point I like to make when discussing the subject is that with touch computers, everyone is computer literate. I went through computer literacy classes that taught typing and how to navigate an operating system at a young age. My kids, however, don’t need to go through computer literacy classes to begin computing with an iPad. They picked it up and, from day one, used it to meet their needs. I would argue this is the case with any age group.

A computer was always said to be a sound investment in your child’s future. I think one can make an argument today that an iPad is a sound investment in your child’s future. Of course, the software plays a key role because software that is designed around the touch computing paradigm is required in order for any touch-based computer to be successful.

This, in fact, may be one of the most important things Apple has done for the computer industry. The company didn’t just release the first real touch based computer; it released an underlying software platform, applications and developer tool kits (and now authoring tools) that are all centered around developing solutions for touch-based computers.

Just look at the recent announcement from Apple and the publishing industry. Without a touch-based computer and the underlying developer tool kits, we would not be sitting around talking about the re-invention of the textbook — which is exactly what Apple is up to.

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The point is, our experiences with computers have largely been mouse and keyboard based. In the future they will be mostly touch based. Think about it: The most popular operating systems today are touch-based, the most popular apps today are touch-based and the most popular books in the near future will be touch-based. Touch brings productivity, learning, entertainment and more into a new era.

Mouse and keyboard computing paradigms are still relevant, but will be relegated to task-specific usage — things like long text entry, text or document formatting, for instance. Touch computing may offer some viable solutions to do such tasks, but keyboard and mouse inputs will still be superior in some areas.

The bottom line is that for the first 30 years of computing, text and then mouse navigation drove our PCs’ input, but we have now turned a major corner in the world of personal computing. From this point on, touch will be the main way we deal with navigation and input, and will be at the heart of the majority of our computing devices for some time.

With Apple’s introduction of Siri, we are already starting to see the next major input medium that will eventually drive a great deal of our computing input and navigation — but we are probably still about five years out before voice becomes the main way we interact with our devices. With the proliferation of smartphones and tablets and their role in driving the next generation of personal computing, though, we are now firmly planted in the age of touch computing. There’s no turning back.

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Ben Bajarin is the director of consumer-technology analysis and research at Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market intelligence firm in Silicon Valley.