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Inside the multitouch FingerWorks tech in Apple's tablet

Steve Jobs kills the stylus

During Apple's year and a half of multitouch development, Jeff Han at New York University's Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences demonstrated his own independent research into multitouch user interfaces at TED in February 2006. Han's demonstration quickly spread interest in multitouch features.

After seeing the iPhone's debut, Han reportedly said, "The iPhone is absolutely gorgeous, and I've always said, if there ever were a company to bring this kind of technology to the consumer market, it's Apple. I just wish it were a bit bigger so I could really use both of my hands."

At the iPhone's introduction, Steve Jobs boldly announced that stylus-driven interfaces that Microsoft's Gates had hailed just a half decade earlier were no longer worth investigating. "Now, how are we going to communicate this?" Jobs said of the iPhone. "We don't want to carry around a mouse, right? So what are we going to do? Oh, a stylus, right? We're going to use a stylus. No. Who wants a stylus? You have to get em and put em away, and you lose em. Yuck. Nobody wants a stylus. So let's not use a stylus."

We're going to use the best pointing device in the world. We're going to use a pointing device that we're all born with —born with ten of them. We're going to use our fingers. We're going to touch this with our fingers. And we have invented a new technology called multi-touch, which is phenomenal. It works like magic. You don't need a stylus. It's far more accurate than any touch display that's ever been shipped. It ignores unintended touches, it's super-smart. You can do multi-finger gestures on it. And boy, have we patented it."

So we have been very lucky to have brought a few revolutionary user interfaces to the market in our time. First was the mouse. The second was the click wheel. And now, we're going to bring multi-touch to the market. And each of these revolutionary interfaces has made possible a revolutionary product: the Mac, the iPod and now the iPhone."

Competitors react to Apple's touch

Microsoft responded to the iPhone by demonstrating its own multitouch system: a camera-driven, table-top appliance called the Surface, which is designed to act as a large information kiosk that can respond to multiple touch points and to specially barcoded objects placed on it. However, the company has continued to sell a stylus-oriented interface for its ill-fated Tablet PC devices and Windows Mobile smartphones, with promises of a touch-based upgrade repeatedly delayed by technical problems. Windows Mobile 7 with iPhone-like touch features is now expected no sooner than early 2011, a full four years after the iPhone's debut.

Despite far more limited resources and failing fortunes, Palm was able to deliver its own multitouch device in the Palm Pre just three years after the iPhone. Palm's development team greatly benefitted from an infusion of Apple talent, from executive Jon Rubinstein to iPhone engineers looking to work on new projects outside of Apple.

In addition to Palm and Microsoft, other companies have also found it difficult to follow Apple's footsteps without also infringing upon its patented technology. RIM found its development of the iPhone-like BlackBerry Storm to be both challenging and problematic, while Google has cautiously worked to take its Android "Windows Mobile-killer" and modify it to work more like the iPhone, without also running into any multitouch grievances with Apple. The original Android prototypes were Windows Mobile-like devices with lots of physical buttons; years later, they are looking more and more like the iPhone, with expanded use of touch interface features.

The future of touch

Outside of smartphones, Apple has also applied its multitouch technology in MacBook trackpads and the new Magic Mouse. Both are rather conservative implementations of multitouch gestures which don't require much specialized training from users. For its tablet and future trackpad devices, Apple may introduce a new layer of sophistication in multitouch gestures. Patent filings suggest the possibility of a new interface that manipulates objects represented in a deep three dimensional space.

It's also possible Apple may release an advanced keyboard along the lines of FingerWorks' original TouchStream, presenting a flat touchpad with zero force, multitouch input. The company has steadily rolled out multitouch trackpad enhancements for its MacBook line, but has a long ways to go before it match the fancy gestures (with potential to learn programmable functions) that FingerWorks supported in its iGesture Pad and TouchStream keyboards. FingerWork's devices could enter modes suited to specific applications, such as games, Maya or Photoshop; or specific uses, including general desktop control, search, text selection and styling, and browsing functions.

Many critics initially assailed the iPhone's virtual keyboard, but the popularity of Apple's smartphone since suggests tremendous potential for new applications of multitouch interfaces that augment or even replace the conventional mechanical keyboard. In addition to helping users avoid RSI damage, touch sensitive input allows for a complex vocabulary of gestures, the input typing speed of a keyboard, the pointing accuracy of a mouse, and a customizable degree of complexity scaling from the needs of basic users to very advanced, specialized functionality.

The advantages of touch-driven interfaces are clear, and suggest lots of potential for future applications in both mobile devices and desktop systems. Apple certainly isn't alone in working to productize and deliver new technology in the category of multitouch devices, but the future of touch interfaces may make a big leap next week with Apple's expected tablet introduction.