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Why multitouch on notebooks makes perfect sense
Hey, look! I posted my first Vine yesterday!
…And I regretted it almost instantly.
Twitter responders: YOU HAVE GRAVELY DISAPPOINTED ME.
(stern, silent glare)
This snappy 6-second video makes the statement “Touchscreens on notebooks make sense because hey, look…here’s an instance where it’s actually quite handy.” Many people on Twitter read between the lines — the line? — and interpreted this as “Touchscreens are better than trackpads and they should be used for everything you do on a notebook and a desktop user interface works just as well under multitouch as iOS or Android and all MacBooks need to have touchscreens and what the hell is up with notebooks that don’t have them, and…”
And so forth, you’d have to ask the Read Between the Line-ers for the rest of it. I am left baffled and confused.
(resuming the grave glare)
AND GRAVELY DISAPPOINTED.
(back to friendly expression)
Here’s the thing. I’m in the middle of my deep-soak testing of Google’s Chromebook Pixel (review coming soon). This is the first time I’ve spent a whole week with a touchscreen-enabled notebook as my daily driver, to do all of my actual work. I try to to deep-soak testing because I often learn things I wouldn’t have figured out if I were being more casual about it. I’ve had other touchscreen notebooks on loan, but they all failed to pass the “Meh” test. So they never made it to the “deep soak” stage.
What I’ve learned from my experience with the Pixel is that I’m using the touchscreen a lot. And it almost blows my mind. I never would have expected that.
The Pixel runs stock Chrome OS, which isn’t optimized for multitouch. And there’s sooooo much more to implementing Touch on a PC than just adding touchscreen hardware. Windows XP Tablet Edition failed in part because Microsoft expected a touchscreen to interact with stock Windows the same way as a mouse would. They ignored the obvious fact that the tip of a mouse pointer is one pixel high by one pixel wide, and the tip of a finger is rather a bit larger.
I am a professional journalist and I proudly point out that I wrote that explanation from scratch instead of simply cutting-and-pasting it from all of the other times I’ve mentioned it over the years.
So you can understand my surprised at my own behavior with the Pixel. The lesson I learned, and the lesson I hoped that this Vine video would communicate, is that “trackpad OR touchscreen” is a limited, old-fashioned way of thinking.
Do we argue about “trackpad OR keyboard shortcuts”? Of course not. We use the trackpad for nearly all manipulation of the UI of a new app, but we tend to add keyboard commands to our repertoire as we go. We come to learn that there are some operations for which keyboard shortcuts are quicker, more convenient, and even more natural.
The Pixel has a superb glass trackpad and yes, of course, I use it for the majority of my mousing. But after a couple of days with it, my brain started to innately remember that oh, right, this thing has a touchscreen, doesn’t it, and discovering quicker, more convenient, and even more natural ways to do things.
You can guess that I spend lots of time writing. When I need to move the cursor a large distance to make an edit, I give the screen a flick and then tap where I want the cursor to land. The Pixel’s touchscreen is accurate enough that the cursor lands either exactly where I wanted it, or just an arrow-key or two away. It often seems faster, simpler, and more direct than the trackpad (tap-swipe, tap-swipe, tap-swiiiiiippppeeee…click!) or even keyboard navigation.
The Vine shows off something I’m doing so frequently that I was driven to Vine about it. I’m often reading long things on a notebook. Resting my hands on a keyboard is something I do when I’m working. My reading posture is completely different. My hand is on the table and it naturally rests near the lower right corner of the screen. I can scroll, scroll, scroll with just a flick of my thumb. Same thing when I’m sitting up on the sofa, or lying in bed with the Pixel on my chest. I have three options for scrolling (keyboard, trackpad, touchscreen) and I can choose the most comfortable mechanism for the operation at hand. Oftentimes…it’s the touchscreen.
Yes, I can scroll with a function key, or a two-fingered touchpad swipe. And when it seems simplest to scroll like that, I use those features. But the touchscreen is a valuable option.
My comfortable reaction to the Pixel’s touchscreen is mostly due to anthropology rather than engineering.
The world of modern computing is a touchscreen world. Between my phone and my iPad, I often spend hours every day tapping and swiping screens. This method of interacting with computers has been flash-updated to my mental firmware. It’s so deeply ingrained at this point that there are some smudges here on my MacBook’s screen where I’ve tapped a button, expecting the app (usually a website) to respond.
(You have done this, too. You don’t need to admit it publicly. But we both know this is true.)
We can talk about “gorilla arm” syndrome and the imperatives of fully-immersive multitouch design and all that other stuff. But complaining about how “multitouch absolutely requires a device and an OS optimized for that method of input” is like arguing that a tomato isn’t a vegetable. You will win the semantic argument, but the Humans will continue to do what comes naturally to them. The Humans have embraced multitouch.
Which is why I’ve changed my thinking. Multitouch on a notebook — even one that doesn’t appear to naturally “want” multitouch — makes complete sense to me and I’d love to see it on every notebook or desktop that can practically and affordably implement it.
I see multitouch as an example of a kind of feature of which I’m quite fond. It’s invisible to people who don’t want to use it, but if you’re open to the idea, it’s there…and it might make your life easier. It’s all about putting options before the user, and letting him or her develop the habits that make the most sense for them, specifically.
Personally, I’m enjoying having all three types of inputs available to me on the Chromebook Pixel, and I’m making appropriate use of all of them. I’m not insisting that the industry in general, or you, specifically, should switch to multitouch notebooks. But as a basic principle, when a proposed feature doesn’t compromise the overall design and utility of a device (please reread that condition), I prefer to hear a user say “I don’t like that feature, so I don’t use it” than hear a manufacturer say “We refuse to even offer that feature, because we consider it ideologically unsound.”