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Inside the multitouch FingerWorks tech in Apple's tablet

Touch takes on the keyboard: 2000s

The venerable keyboard survived unscathed through all the pen-centric hype of the 1990s, when the enthusiastic suggestion that mainstream users would migrate away from typing and back towards the older convention of writing with a stylus simply didn't pan out. Instead, the use of keyboards began to expand and morph into the unrestricted touch-based interfaces long envisioned by science fiction writers.

Rather than advancing the efficiency of keyboard typing by shifting toward a supposedly more "natural" input system designed to mimic the ancient writing instrument (as Pen Computing was largely seen to be fated to accomplish in the 90s, and as Gates predicted for the following decade), the stylus only gave users a slower, clumsier way to interact with their devices.

Vast sums invested into developing the technology to read handwritten text had failed to solve many of the problems associated with typing on a keyboard: the physical stress of writing was not much of an improvement over banging on a keyboard; the input speed was much lower; and benefits in the area of physical size were somewhat nullified by the inconvenience of having a stylus device that had to be stowed and was easy to lose.

Just as Palm's stylus-driven PDAs began reaching the height of their popularity, Apple launched a mobile device that similarly avoided any use of a keyboard. Rather than using a stylus input however, Apple's new iPod used a mechanical scroll wheel which made navigating through its menus quick and easy. It was not very good at entering any large amount of text, but it did become a very popular way to pilot through large music collections.

Starting in 2002, Apple's successive iPod designs used solid state (non-mechanical) touch-sensitive click wheels. Apple had previously pioneered the use of touch-sensitive trackpads in its 1994 PowerBook 500, which was the first notebook to use a solid state pointing device rather than a mechanical trackball or joystick. Nearly a decade later, the company was now making touch-sensitivity the primary user interface for a new class of mobile devices.

Meanwhile, Palm and Microsoft began adapting their stylus-driven PDA operating systems to serve as mobile phones. Palm's Treo line converted the conventional Pilot PDA into a device with a BlackBerry-like mini keypad and a stylus-driven screen. Microsoft's licensees developed a variety of devices with different combinations of mini-keyboards, full-sized sliding keyboards, and stylus-driven screens. Microsoft's original definition of its "Windows Smartphone" actually described a device without a touchscreen at all, navigated entirely by physical buttons.

Evolution of touch

Apple eyes FingerWorks: 2005

Early smartphone users commonly grew savvy enough at typing with their thumbs to simply ignore the unwieldy stylus provided to tap at the screen, particularly when entering text. As stylus use rapidly fell out a favor, new keyboard technology was released by a startup called FingerWorks. Its devices were essentially trackpads designed to respond to multiple touch points at once, enabling both keyboard-like chording and intuitive gestures similar to those used by the Newton, but performed by finger touch rather than a stylus.

FingerWorks was led by John Elias and Wayne Westerman, two pioneering multitouch researchers who had worked together at the University of Delaware. After founding the company in 1998, the pair produced a series of devices that served as multitouch trackpad devices, from the full TouchStream keyboards to the iGesture Pad, a multifunction, programmable mouse replacement peripheral.

The company gained positive reviews among an enthusiastic niche of power users and people with Repetitive Stress Injury, who reported that FingerWorks' large, low-impact trackpad devices enabled them avoid the taxing pain associated with using mechanical keyboards. However, the company continued to struggle to reach mainstream users up until its assets were mysteriously bought out by an unnamed source in 2005.

It was later revealed that FingerWorks' technology and founders had become part of Apple, after lawsuits against the Mac maker referenced its acquisition of FingerWorks. Additionally, a series of new patents filed by Elias and Westerman were associated with Apple.

Over the next year and a half, research within the company adapted FingerWorks' multitouch ideas from an opaque trackpad surface to a transparent layer of a capacitive touchscreen enabling the kind of direct, multitouch manipulation demonstrated by the iPhone in January 2007.

On page 3 of 3: Steve Jobs kills the stylus.