Article first published as Tablets’ Disruptive Transformation: Enabling Form to Follow Function on Technorati.
Everyone is talking about the rapid growth of the tablet market. Analysts are continually revising (upwards) the number of tablets that will be sold over the next few years. Hundreds of new tablets are competing for market leadership. Even our friends at the TSA now regularly ask us to “remove computers and tablets” for our carry-on luggage when going through airport security.
However, in the midst of this explosion, something big is changing right underneath our noses: millions of us are “re-wiring” how we interact with computers. We are discarding clumsy interface tools (physical keyboards, mice, thumb wheels and styluses) that get between us a computers in favor of the most advanced, flexible tool we possess: our fingers. We are not simply using our fingers to press “virtual” buttons. We now combine gesture with the context of what we are doing to interact in ways that are more natural than we have ever done before. This fundamental change in human-computer interaction allows software developers to design applications the way that architects design buildings, allowing form to follow function:
Tailored Utility: We can now tailor the user interface to provide exactly what controls are needed – and no more. We can provide a big, landscape keyboard for text-intensive applications; and eliminate it entirely, replacing it with buttons and sliders, for media-intensive applications. We can finally get rid of all those pesky “modifier keys” (e.g., Control, F1) and replace them with meaningful keys or buttons (like Play, Save, New, or Edit) Our customers can use their fingers – not multi-step menus – to work as they would in “real life” to turn pages, highlight text, select items, and more.
Environmental Adaptation: We can now – using built-in APIs – exploit accelerometers and embedded cameras to automatically adapt application the surrounding environment. We can let people use natural gestures to optimize the display to suit their needs, allowing them to switch from portrait to landscape, zoom in out, or scroll faster or slower. We can automatically incorporate the tablet’s location and orientation into work or play, saving customers the need of to enter this information themselves. We can use cameras to do everything from automatically adjusting contrast and color based on ambient lighting to automatically recognizing faces and bar codes.
Universal Localization. Providing customers hardware is a loss leader in many industries (e.g., smart phones), often subsidized through software and subscriptions. Doing this across multiple markets, with different languages and character sets, is even more expensive. Touch screen tablets allow localization of application to any language, without switching hardware. In addition, their environmental adaption (above) more naturally supports non-Western languages that use right-to-left and/or top-down orientation.
Yes, capacitive touch-based interaction is not yet perfect. Virtual keyboards are still not as fast as physical ones. Touch entry can be difficult when you have large fingers (or long fingernails). However, the capacitive touch-based tablet market is no longer a fringe market; it is now a growing, mainstream one. Competition will drive innovation, resulting in tablets with better surfaces, broader APIs and increased functionality. In time, tablets will make the keyboards and mice of today as obsolete as the physical buttons and gauges of the past.