I've got this friend. He's a new parent. His daughter – let's call her "BabyGurl" – is just over a year-and-a-half old (19 months, since new parents apparently track time in "months" not "years"). BabyGurl likes to look at photos on her daddy's smartphone. She knows how to swipe through the media gallery, and knows that a photo with an arrow icon on it is actually a movie clip. She loves movie clips, so she figured out how to press the arrow to make a movie play, even if her chubby fingers and still-developing dexterity mean she usually has to tap three or four times before landing on the arrow.
BabyGurl can swipe through photos and also stop and go back when she overshoots a pic or vid she wants to take a closer look at. She's not so good with getting a pic to replay, and often gets frustrated when she accidentally double-taps to zoom in on a photo when she meant to swipe on to the next one. And if she hits a hardware button and goes back to the phone's main menu? Forget about it: GrumpyGurl City. But, remember, she's not even two yet. And she's swiping through photos, both ways, and stopping to hit "Play" on video clips. I'm not gonna name names, but I know some 60 year-olds with graduate degrees who haven't yet mastered the ol' swipe-and-tap routine.
The news that the developer release of Apple's iOS 4.3 for iPad features support for multi-finger gestures shouldn't come as any surprise. From iPhones to iPads to trackpads to "Magic Trackpads," Apple's been pushing their vision of a touchable, swipeable, gesture-i-fied computing future for a few years now. Apple's not the only one embracing touch, not by a longshot – just ask BlackBerry and Nokia what touch-based operating systems have done to the stranglehold they once enjoyed on the smartphone business and you'll feel the full weight of the touch computing revolution that's upon us.
Thing is, said revolution is really just in its infancy stages. Swiping and gesturing around a smartphone is one thing, ditching buttons and mice altogether is quite another. If you believe the rumors, Steve Jobs is pushing full steam ahead towards a buttonless future. Me, I'm still pretty convinced that typing on a button-ful keyboard is faster, easier, and better for my writing than any touchscreen will ever be.
Then again, I'm old. I grew up on buttons. BabyGurl only knows that the pesky Home button on her daddy's smartphone mucks everything up to the point where she has to hand the thing back to Dad so he can re-launch the photo gallery. In time she'll learn what a Home Screen is and which icon launches the "Gallery." Though by then there might just be a customizable gesture that can take her straight to the pictures with a finger-drawn circle on the touchscreen.
And some of the kids I get to talk to in my work? The ones who send 10,000+ texts per month? Some of them prefer touchscreens to QWERTY boards because they're easier on the fingers, aren't susceptible to mechanical failure, and work just fine for fast thumb typing once you get used to them. Heck, I bet those kids can blog at 90 wpm on an iPad or Galaxy Tab, too. Grr.
Point is, today's Users of Tomorrow are growing up without buttons. They're tapping and swiping and pinching-to-zoom. Thanks to Microsoft they're waving and gesticulating and jumping up and down, too.
I bought an Xbox 360 with Kinect sometime around Thanksgiving. It's awesome. I still can't dance, but Dance Central is easily one of my favorite video games of the past few years. I'm not saying it's the best (easy, Halo fanboys), I'm just saying I like it. Perhaps just as intriguing to me is the Kinect Hub that lets me push and wave my way through streaming sports clips from ESPN3 and all manner of content available on Zune. Honestly, navigating that stuff by way of Kinect is the closest I've yet come to that one scene in Minority Report that everybody still beats to death.
During their CES keynote, Steve Ballmer and his gang of Microsoft kin talked a whole lot about Xbox and Kinect. One thing I found interesting was that during the demo of Kinect Hub, reference was made to the idea that no matter how good gesture recognition is, voice control is still the easiest way to get around a UI. Interesting. I, too, have found that when Kinect gets fussy about my lack of precise limb control, reverting back to saying "Xbox! Fetch me some basketball highlights from The Ocho" always works. Well, except for the part where I forget which keywords the system will actually recognize.
Point being, keyboards and mice are the present of computing but they may not be the future. Voice will always be natural, if not practical in every situation. Touchscreens and motion sensors are inherently, infinitely more flexible input devices than arrays of fixed buttons could ever be, and if BabyGurl and those text-crazy teens I was talking about are any indication, the only people who still prefer buttons are old geezers on the brink of full-on luddite status. Like, um, me.
2011 is going to be interesting for many reasons. The avalanche of tablet computers that ruled CES last week is likely to be a big one. I like reading things on Apple's iPad, but personally I find the 9″, 4:3 aspect ratio display a bit too small for comfortable touch-typing given that I'm used to full sized QWERTY boards. But what about Motorola's Xoom and its 10″+ widescreen display brethren? And forget me – what about the kids used to touchscreen phones ready for a bigger screen and more complex applications? They should take to tablets like so many stampeding horses to Vitamin Water, right?
I can see it now. Twelve years hence, I'm just back from CES 2023, BabyGirl is 14 and I run into her and her pops at the coffee shop. "Hey, Mr K," she says. "You went to that electronics show on Mars, right? Did you check out the touch-field gesture projector? Was it cool? I really want one. Screens and motion sensors are SO last year. I just want to wave my arms in front of me and virtual touch type on whatever's handy. I mean, isn't that more natural than having to carry a silly nanosensor around everywhere?"
Sorry, did I say CES 2023? Now that I think about it, that stuff should be here a few years before then.