Will we all scream for touchscreens?

The upcoming iPhone's multi-touch technology isn't anything new, but suddenly there's a deluge of touchscreen devices. Is this the beginning of the end of the keyboard?

By Michal Lev-Ram, Business 2.0 Magazine writer-reporter

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- Maybe I wasn't paying close attention before. But ever since Apple CEO Steve Jobs took center stage in January to unveil the iPhone and its super-sleek interface, touchscreen devices seem to be all the rage.

LG, for instance, just released an $800 keyboard-less phone called the LG Prada in Europe. Samsung announced last month plans for a 3-inch touchscreen-keyboard hybrid, the Ultra Smart F520. PC giant Hewlett-Packard (Charts) and Garmin (Charts), the navigational device maker, both announced advanced touchscreen-only devices. And there's evidence that Palm (Charts) and others are eyeing their own keyboard-less gizmos.

The touchscreen frenzy has me thinking: is the keyboard I'm now pecking at headed the way of the Smith-Corona typewriter? If so, we have Apple (Charts) to thank - or blame, depending on how you look at it.

"There are more and more touchscreen handsets coming out," says Tina Teng, wireless communications analyst with technology research firm iSuppli. "And they're not all a reaction to the iPhone - some were in the works long before."

Typically, it takes anywhere from six months to two years to develop a phone, so Teng has a point. What's more, touchscreen technology isn't new. Santa Clara, Calif.-based Synaptics (Charts) has been working on mobile touchpads for more than three years, and has already shipped over 100 million of them. The company's hyper-sensitive pads appear in the new LG Prada phone, among other devices.

But up until now, American consumers - unlike their European and Asian counterparts - haven't appeared all that interested in ditching their physical keyboards for virtual ones on a screen.

The reasons are varied. Touchscreens, for one thing, are considered more prone to breakage, scratches, and dirt from facial contact. Texting can also be awkward. You can't, say, use a touchscreen wearing gloves (sorry, Michael Jackson) and there's no tactile feedback (i.e., you can't feel each button with your fingers), so you have to look down at the screen while typing.

That said, there's reason to think that the time has come for touchscreens. Why? Because, with all of the news features appearing on phones - Web browsing, music, TV and navigation, to name a few - using touchscreens instead of keypads means you don't need to add more buttons each time you add more functions.

For example, if you're listening to music and suddenly get a call, the buttons you were using to pick and play your song selection would become the controls for answering or hanging up a call. In other words, a more dynamic interface enables users to shift quickly from one function to the next on a touchscreen, without having to know which buttons to press.

"There's so much functionality going into phones," says Clark Foy, VP of marketing at touchpad maker Synaptics. "A good way to keep the user interface simple is with touchscreens that change function depending on what application you're using."

Another side benefit to keyboard-less phones - they tend to be thinner and sleeker (a la iPhone) than their keypad-heavy counterparts.

Despite the advance, some device makers are moving cautiously. Though Motorola (Charts) sells an all-touch phone, the Ming (now the best-selling smartphone in China), the company says it has no plans to introduce the Ming or any device like it in the United States.

"Historically, carriers and customers have been resistant to touchscreens," says Rob Shaddock, the chief technology officer in Motorola's mobile devices unit.

Similarly, LG is releasing the Prada phone in Europe and Asia only. And while LG spokesman Keith Carpenter says the device maker will "most likely" bring the phone to North America, he won't say when that might happen.

But the Apple iPhone, which goes on sale in June for $500 and $600, is aiming right for the American market.

"I have used an iPhone and I found it addictive," says Avi Greengart, a principal analyst with Current Analysis in Teaneck, N.J. "Little things, like scrolling through a list, are a joy. You just flick your finger across the screen."

Sounds cool to me. If the iPhone takes off - as many expect it will given Apple's track record - expect to see an even greater deluge of touchscreens coming ashore. And if the iPhone bombs does the seemingly unthinkable and bombs, then consider your QWERTY keyboard safe.

But we'll just have to wait and touch, won't we?  Top of page

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