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Touch: The finger versus the stylus

One advantage of being in the industry for a long time is seeing the development pendulum go back and forth. One such pendulum is the way of interacting with touch interfaces. Touch interfaces existed long before the current phone and tablet devices. I remember the HP-150, an early touchscreen PC, from my days working on Kermit in the 1980s. It was not a big seller, so you probably never used one. However, you may have used early touchscreen technology in devices like kiosks. While those touch interfaces were fairly simple, you used your fingertip on the screen to indicate your selections.

When PDAs became a big deal in the 1990s, the stylus rather than the fingertip became the way to touch the screen. If you lost your stylus or did not feel like pulling it out of the case, you could use your fingernail. I became very good at writing in the odd script that the Palm OS used. (I still sometimes write the letter A as an upside-down V.) Though the stylus was easier, you could do most things using your fingernail. I also used a stylus (and my fingernail) with Windows smartphones.

Smartphones, especially the iPhone, swung the pendulum back to touching the screen with your fingertip. It took me a decent bit of time to adjust to touching the screen that way. I also had to get used to staring at screens through fingerprints. The ability to multi-touch, however, made that worthwhile. (And, caused me to make sure I always carry those screen-cleaning cloths.)

Recent tablets have generally utilized multi-touch, fingertip interfaces. I still find myself wishing for a stylus at times. I’ve purchased a few different styli for using my iPad, but the mushy, fingertip-like ends leave much to be desired. I just ordered an interesting compromise, the Adonit Jot Classic Stylus. I’m hopeful, but won’t be surprised if I’m disappointed.

The stylus on some Windows 7 tablets like the Dell Latitude ST shows what is possible with a stylus. The stylus can be really useful in some work environments. Hopefully, we’ll see more innovation in touch interfaces. In my ideal world, I could use a simple stylus or my fingernail some of the time and my fingertips when multi-touch is better—all on a single device, of course! For now, I just have to keep cleaning off my iPad’s screen while I try to find the ideal stylus.

Whatever way the touch interface pendulum swings, we’ll try to make sure that TouchXPRT will be the right tool to measure it.


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