Touchscreens have made their mark on the mobile phone industry over the past 9 months like never before. Though handsets with touch-based user interfaces existed long before Apple's iconic iPhone started grabbing a disproportionate share of the mobile headlines last year, the fact is that iPhone really has ushered in a new era in mobile device design and usage. Six months ago the first thing I did when reviewing new touchscreen phone was look for the stylus; now I start poking at the thing directly with my fingertips. That's a tribute to Apple's finger-friendly, multitouch screen design.
While I do wonder why nobody else released a virtually scratch-proof, hardened glass touchscreen before Apple did, it's not like iPhone's the only touchable phone in town. HTC's Touch and Touch Cruise and LG's Venus and Voyager come immediately to mind as recent examples of handsets attempting to up their ease of use by way of touch-tech. The thing is, there's more to a good user experience with a touchscreen-based device than "simply" slapping a scratch-resistant, highly sensitive touch display on the front.
What makes iPhone so great is its combination of that best-in-class display with a highly intuitive, well thought out user interface. Pinching photos and flicking through Web pages and contacts lists is cool, but reducing the number of physical buttons on the device to as few as possible is genius. Sure, Nokia's N95 is more powerful and its 13-button front panel layout provides more control and shortcut options for advanced users, but iPhone's single Home button makes using the thing easy - even for novices. Get lost in a menu, stuck in an App, or otherwise not sure what to do? Click Home. Easy.
I do wish that iPhone had some more physical buttons for input's sake - Email and text messaging, in particular, could benefit from a QWERTY thumbboard, and I'm a bit dubious of how playing those fancy new games will work on a buttonless device (we'll find that out when Apple rolls out its iPhone App Store in September). On that note I'm excited to check out new touchscreen-based sliderphones like LG's Glimmer and the HTC Touch Dual.
I recently got a review sample of the LG Venus for Verizon and was quickly taken with its high-res, easy to read menus and "touch navigation" panel that reconfigures itself according to what application you're using. But I quickly found that I wanted to touch the whole screen, and not just the lower third that had been given touch capabilities. While the morphing menu concept is great, having to navigate the main display by way of a virtual D-Pad located just below it was frustrating. Why not make the whole display touchable?
Windows Mobile (and other) smartphones have, of course, been built with touchscreens for a few years now. But none of them quite have the usability thing down. WinMob itself is pretty user-unfriendly, and the standard "layer of film" touch display just can't handle fingers and flicking and gesturing like an iPhone. I'm really hoping that an innovative WinMob device maker like HTC finds a winning combination of hardware and software to bring a user- and finger-friendly UI to harness the power of WinMob soon. HTC's Touch was a good start, but it fell a bit short for me both in terms of the feel of the screen and the TouchFlo UI (I wanted it to go deeper into the OS instead of merely acting like a Launcher on steroids). HTC did great work with T-Mobile on Shadow's user interface, and Microsoft recently said they're committed to making Windows Mobile more compatible with custom UI layers, so there's hope beyond Apple for sure.
And, of course, there's the recently launched Sony Ericsson Xperia X1 - a Windows Mobile device with a custom layer of UI and finger-friendly touchscreen - that's due to ship by Summer. Nokia's forthcoming S60 Touch user interface should also signal a paradigm shift at the world's leading mobile phone maker. These are both good things. Too often consumer technology innovations do little beyond making spec sheets more exciting. Here's hoping that this new trend in the mobile phone industry is for real, and that today's tech continues to focus on making handsets easier - and more fun and productive - to use.