One mom agrees: Capacitive touch displays are where it's at

Noah Kravitz
 from  Oakland, CA
| June 17, 2009

My folks were in town recently and while they were visiting my Mom asked me about getting a new cell phone.  "Is the Curve a good phone?" she asked.  Uh-oh, I thought.  My Mom is no techie, so where'd she hear about the Curve?  Is she running with some no-good retirees who've put crazy ideas about BlackBerries in her head?

Turns out she was at a party when some bit of trivia was being discussed that nobody could quite remember the details of.  One of the partygoers pulled out his BlackBerry Curve and looked the info up online.  My Mom was transfixed.  So she didn't really want a BlackBerry so much as a phone that could get her onto the Web quickly, easily, and wherever she goes.

Being the PhoneDog that I am, I quickly arranged some real-world testing for her benefit.  I ran to the home office, came back downstairs, and set the dining room table with five phones that I thought might be to her liking: Apple iPhone 3G, T-Mobile G1 with Google, Samsung Impression, T-Mobile Sidekick LX 2009, and of course, BlackBerry Curve 8900.  I chose the devices based on a combination of three factors: Web browser, overall ease of use, and style.  Hey, my Mom's got style, and so should her phone!  The Palm Pre hadn't yet been launched or else I would have included it in the mix.

I made sure the phones were all charged up and turned on and gave my Mom a simple task: "Think of something to look up online and try to do it on each phone.  Start out trying to do it on your own, and I'll help you if you can't figure out how to get onto the Web or otherwise work the darn things."

What followed was the kind of thing that market research phones videotape and sell to handset makers and cellular carriers for big bucks.  I watched as a non-geek, would-be smartphone buyer tried to figure out how the heck to use one of these devices and which, if any, would be worth two years of her time and hard earned cash.

Mom started out with the Impression and liked it okay - the keyboard and overall design were nice, but the touchscreen was a bit wonky to respond to her commands.  She dismissed the Sidekick almost immediately (which makes sense given that the SK is designed for and marketed to the exact opposite of my Mom's demographic), and didn't pay the Curve much mind since she'd already seen it at that party.

Then she picked up the G1.  She needed my help figuring out how to wake the thing up.  But then she touched the screen, launched the browser, and swiped her away around a few Web pages.  Her eyes lit up.

"Oh, I like this one," she said with a smile.  "It's a lot easier to use than the others."

Capacitive touch, FTW.  If you're reading this Mom, "FTW" means "For the Win," which translates to, "You like this one because it has newer, better screen technology than the others."

She played with the G1 awhile and then moved on to the iPhone.  At first she preferred G1's physical keyboard, but iPhone's icons and slimmer, curvier form factor kept drawing her back.  Then I showed her the landscape QWERTY board available on iPhone's Web browser and it was all over.  She'd sipped from Apple's vat of Kool Aid.

The takeaway here, though, was that capacitive touch displays are just plain easier to use than resistive screens - unless you're a user with really long nails, mittens, or a really strong attachment to your stylus.  Simple taps, let alone modern gestures like flicks, swipes, and pinches are just plain easier to execute on capacitive screens than on resistive screens.  And while hardcore phonegeeks are often willing and able to deal with pressure-based input schemes in order to delve into a device's other attributes, smartphones have gone mainstream and mainstream consumers couldn't care less if a phone is resistive or capacitive.  They just want the thing to work, and work easily, and - ideally - be fun to use.

Hardware's only half the story, as evidenced by my Mom's preferring the iPhone to the G1.  Android is awesome in lots of ways, but it's not as easy for the mainstream/novice user to just pick up and run with as iPhone OS is - or at least that's the conclusion my Mom drew.  But the capacitive screen/intuitive user interface combo is clearly where the cell phone industry is headed right now.  Smartphones mean more money for hardware companies and carriers alike, and so the goal has to be getting more of these data-driven devices into the hands of more novice users - like Dear Old Mom.  And as Mom will tell you, capacitive touch is the way down that money-lined road.