This is really touching…

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No, not really. I just wanted to talk about all of the hoopla about touchscreen mobile devices. They aren’t really anything new. Remember your Palm Pilot? Or before that, your Sharp Wizard? The world of 1990’s PDAs were full of touch responsive devices. Granted, none of them used your finger, and were really trying to emulate the idea of a mouse and desktop from a PC, but the concept of touchscreen is NOT new.

I had a Sharp Wizard and Zaurus, and I had many, many Palms (III-VII, I think). I had iPaq’s, and hundreds of other doodads that I had to tap, touch and push in order to get them to work. Frankly, I didn’t miss any of them when it was time to have them move onto the “Sell on eBay” pile. Then, I got a Treo (600, 650, 700). That is when my love affair with touch began. The Palm OS is old, the phones really weren’t terrific as voice communication devices, but the touchscreen really came into its own. The onscreen buttons made sense. The experience was intuitive, engaging and strangely organic.

Today, there are dozens and dozens of devices that use the power of touch to create a communication experience. (My Blackberry 8830, sadly, isn’t one of them. The trackball is cool, but a touchscreen (especially with the Opera browser) would be delicious.) So, why all the hoopla today about the LG Voyager or HTC Touch? Well, they are pretenders…they are touch-enabled devices, certainly, but the experience with either isn’t really that organic. I don’t touch them to browse, sort, edit or engage with my content. In these devices, you dive from a very intuitive touch interface into a pretty standard WinMo environment, which is anything but organic. (To clarify, I don’t own either device, I’ve just fumbled around with them, so my impressions may not be accurate.)

There are other devices, like the iPhone and, I suspect, the upcoming touchy Nokias that are built from the ground up to be touchable and where gestures and action have meaning, and aren’t just replacements for mouseclicks. They really usher in a new paradigm of interaction, but more importantly, they change the fundamental interface of the device category as a whole. The traditional number keypad is replaced with fluid interfaces and complex navigation options that allow the user to organize and access varied forms of content and information in ways that the traditional mobile phone never could. (As a disclaimer, I think I want an iPhone. I generally groove on Apple products, so I think my next device will be an iPhone…but I am not a zealot and I am not saying that Apple has any special claim to having all the answers.)

So, what does the rise of touch mean for the industry? I think that is pretty clear:

  • For the carrier: Let the folks who are good at content do the content. Focus on being the piped. But of course, you can’t be skinny pipes anymore. As the display and access environment of the mobile phone morphs from a keypad to an interactive screen, you need to move more bits, faster and faster, to the screen. You need to have infrastructure both in towers and caching technologies that make the delivery of content as good as or better than when I am at my desk. Frankly, my phone is more important than my laptop. Make sure that you have a network that honors that position. And truly, I think this plays to your strengths, carriers are good at scale and reliability and moving data. Focus on your pipes and making your network work with me, and I think that your value to me as a subscriber will be cemented. (As a corollary, in the world of cable, do you think I am a Comcast subscriber because they own the Golf Channel or E!? Nope, I am a Comcast subscriber because their pipes get me all the television and internet access I want at a fair price with great reliability.)
  • For the developer: Stop insulting me. Stop thinking that a little bit of information is all I want. Yeah, I know that you have to serve many masters and many handset types and many needs, but pay attention, my phone is more important than my laptop. Make sure that I have the opportunity to use your interface to access the information the way that I want! Give me the chance to browse the headlines and the chance to read the ENTIRE story. Give the chance to looks at a 15 second video clip OR a 30 minute show. Let me change the way that I interact with your product. Remember, you are software. It’s not hardware, it is software that should be flexible and malleable and responsive. Stop making products that I wouldn’t use unless I had no other choice. Make products that inspire me, that engage me that inform me, OR make products that get out of the way and let me have access to the content! Facilitate my exploration, enhance my experience, or be gone from my phone!
  • For the device manufacturer: Stop making products that are so complex to use. Remember, I buy the phone so that I can use it, not so that you train me to fit into your concept of organization. Make the phone powerful enough that well-written software makes it fly. Stop creating machine OSs that get in the way and make the abstract layers like Java less powerful. Remember that I am human, and that my phone is more important than my laptop. Give me hardware that I trust, give me hardware that is robust, and give me hardware that plays well with others (like Java, or Flash, of BREW, or whatever). Don’t give me a phone that is incapable of becoming the most important device I own.

I am done ranting. But the rise of the touch interface has really brought many of the issues that I have with carriers, developers and devices to the fore. Give me organic elegance, give me intuitive operation, and give me flexibility. I guess I am pretty touchy today…

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