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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Hardware Leads in 2007

In some ways you could say 2007 was a year for hardware.

Twenty years ago, Bill Gates and others in the computer world made the bold statement that the future is about software and that this strange world of command and control, embedded deeply in the guts of the wires and boxes we all had on our desktop was really just an intermediary to the software that make us more powerful.

For the next ten years we stagnated in an ocean of beige boxes, monitors, and boxy peripherals and unimaginative hardware.

And since then, software has dominated the evolution of the computer world. Computer conferences and trade shows were filled with the latest and greatest "next revision" and version updates and what they meant for end users.

Then, a few years ago the cutting edge innovation was wifi and distributive computing.

However, 2007 could well be regarded as the year of hardware. Apple's iPhone, iPod Touch and touch screen technologies could be named the biggest product advancements of the year. And touch screen technology could well be at the leading edge of a whole new wave of development and change in our computing experience.

Sure, people will tell you that iPhone wasn't the first to have a touch screen or that Apple didn't lead the way. Enthusiasts have long talked about touch screens going back to and before the Newton and Palm Pilot. Every since the advent of the mouse, techies have envisioned a keyboardless future but instead the typewriter-style input method proliferated rather than died as some had predicted in the 1980s.

Yet, the touch screen technology employed on the iPhone and iPod Touch make these devices truly innovative and redefine the user interaction with them as opposed to either working poorly or simply being an afterthought.

When Jobs squeezed his fingers together to zoom in, tapped to enlarge, rotated to change orientation and flicked his finger to scroll - everything about touch screen and interface suddenly came alive with potential for average users and the marketplace was magically infused with new life. A new field called haptics made this tactile virtual reality a innovation for the future rather than a mishap of the past.

Scroll wheels and QWERTY keyboards might finally become a less dominant means for inputting data to your computer, music player, cell phone or palm device. Fortunately, for us as computer users, hardware manufacturers are thinking outside the beige box and will stop thinking of computing as someone sitting at a desk, hands on the keyboard, eyes looking straight ahead and start fitting the hardware technology to us rather than us to the technology.

And the iPhone was not the only new wave product using touch screen emerging in 2007. Microsoft's multitouch computing table, while not selling as many units world-wide as the iPhone and iPod Touch it is clearly a part of this new trend. There have been rumors that Apple is developing a multitouch Mac with a larger screen than the iPhone but using the same direct interaction of tap for click, pinch for zoom and flick for scroll that exists with iPod Touch and iPhone.

In Jobs' coy way, he has hinted at the future of the Mac interface by saying, there are no “verbs” in the iPhone interface, alluding to the way a standard mouse or stylus system works. In menu command systems, users select an object, like a photo, and then separately select an action, or “verb,” to do something to it.

Technology is in the works for wall sized touch screens that could start to be seen in office buildings, conference rooms or designed into flat screen TVs, gaming modules, and home movie theaters. There is even talk about kitchen refrigerator touch screen magnets that will connect via wifi to the internet. Bath-mat and shower stalls next?

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