When you write about technology, you see a lot of demos, demo being the industry term for when an executive demonstrates a new product for an audience, usually with the aid of a nervous tech-support guy. Under the emotional stress of the moment, the product quite often vomits data and dies. But not always. The two best demos I've seen this year were from two very different companies, Apple and Microsoft, and oddly enough, they were in many ways demos of the same product. One is a gimme: the iPhone, Apple's brilliant deconstruction of the common cell phone, due out June 29. The other is a product mysteriously code-named Milan, from a new branch of Microsoft called, not much less mysteriously, surface computing. What the two have in common is a very advanced touch screen.
We've been conditioned to hate touch screens; we've all spent way too much time timidly caressing tiny laptop trackpads and jabbing fingers at the grubby, unresponsive touch screens on ATMs. But the iPhone's screen is another animal altogether. It's extremely sensitive, like a trackpad, but not oversensitive. There's software in there designed to filter out inadvertent touches, interpret gestures and anticipate what you're groping for. Unlike a trackpad, which goes berserk if you try to touch it in two places at once, the iPhone's touch screen can handle multiple touches. After you take a photo with the iPhone's camera, you can put two fingers on the image and literally stretch it to make it bigger.
The overall effect is more than a laundry list of nifty features. It's the realization of the core metaphor of modern consumer computing, dating back to the Macintosh or arguably to the first computer mouse, introduced in 1968. The idea was that we would all pretend that abstract digital information is physically real, that we could see it and manipulate it according to physical laws. The iPhone takes the graphical-user interface--the GUI, in the parlance, pronounced "gooey"--a step further and makes it a tactile user interface. You're viewing a little world where data are objects, and instead of just pressing your nose up against the glass, you can reach in and pinch and touch those bits and bytes with your hands. The word is made flesh. Any realer and it would be Tron.
Lest you think this is more Steve Jobs magic, the core technology behind the iPhone's touch screen probably wasn't developed at Apple. Rumors swirl around a company called Fingerworks, founded by two University of Delaware professors, that Apple acquired in 2005. This doesn't reflect a weakness in Apple's R&D but rather one of the company's strengths, its ability to ingest other companies and seamlessly incorporate their innovations into its own. People slam Apple as an arrogant organization, but it doesn't have the not-invented-here issues of, say, Sony.
Imagine an iPhone the size of a coffee table, and you'll have some idea of what Microsoft has been working on for the past five years. Milan is, in fact, a table, with a large touch screen for a tabletop; the format will remind the nostalgic among you of the old cocktail-style arcade games. Like the iPhone, Milan's screen can accommodate multiple touches at once. My first reaction was that I was looking at a patent death match in the making, but the underlying mechanisms turn out to be very different: Milan uses a system of infrared cameras to keep track of where your fingers are, whereas the iPhone senses your fingers' electrical properties.
Milan looks like a large, expensive toy--or maybe a dedicated virtual finger-painting workstation--but Microsoft and its partners have been very shrewd about coming up with practical applications. For example, place a Bluetooth-enabled digital camera on the tabletop. Milan recognizes the camera, wirelessly sucks out your photos and displays them on the tabletop in a stack. Anybody sitting around the table can then pass the photos around and even stretch and shrink them, iPhone-style. Or imagine the Milan as a restaurant table: diners sort through a tabletop menu, dragging and dropping appetizers and entrées, swapping their choices back and forth as they plan their respective meals.
And so on. Imagine a family table that can pull up the layout of every board game ever made. "I think we're just scratching the surface," says Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft's entertainment and devices division, realizing a second too late that he's making a pun. "If you just go through any business, you can find applications." Milan will start showing up in public this fall; the first units will be information kiosks in the Harrah's family of casinos.
Touch screens are unlikely to stop there. They're just too useful. Once you use an iPhone, you'll get twitchy fingers. You'll wonder why you can't swipe your finger across your laptop screen to jump backward and forward in your browser. The touchability exposes the mouse as the crude finger substitute that it really is. Look at the success of Nintendo's Wii, which works on the same principle, converting physical movements into virtual ones. People are ready to break the fourth wall of computing and put their fingers directly on the data. This is manual-free computing, instinctive and intuitive, with zero learning curve. "Almost anybody can demo it," Bach says proudly. "That's when you know you have a great product."