Rise of the planet of the tablets

Tablets may be primitive now, but some day they'll rule our world

The Planet of the Apes series of sci-fi thrillers in the late 1960s and early '70s depicted a world in which intelligent apes are the dominant species and humans have been subordinated.

But it wasn't until the most recent movie in the series, The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, where the transition was explained. (The movie opens this weekend.)

Predictions about the future of touch tablet computing have been rolled out in similar fashion. We've been hearing for years that in the future, everything including desktops would be controlled not by a mouse, but by direct touch, just like the iPad.

Many people I've talked to think this is impossible. Tablets, they say, are primitive and have limited brainpower compared with full-featured desktop PCs. The primitive never replaces the more civilized - evolution goes in the other direction.

Of course, that's what Charlton Heston thought.

Skepticism about the future of tablets has always been reasonable, in part because it's very difficult to see how we get there from here. Just like in Planet of the Apes, the transition had never been revealed to us.

A mouse enables fine control over point and clicking. As a result, user interfaces designed for WIMP (windows, icons, menus, pointing devices) are cluttered and cramped. Options are presented in tight lists. Everything has menus on it. Buttons have gotten tiny. It requires a level of abstract thinking (click over here to effect change over there) that only humans can manage.

A touch-tablet interface, for all its advantages, must contend with fat fingers, which limit how small buttons can be, how closely packed selectable on-screen items are and how cluttered screens can be. Touch interfaces benefit from "physics," where on-screen objects move and interact as if they had momentum and mass, and also "gestures," where specific finger motions send commands to the system. The upside is that touch computing is so intuitive that even a monkey can do it.

These interfaces are completely different. So how will they get us from here to there?

Now we know the answer: The biggest trend in interface right now is the hybrid UI -- interfaces that work both for pointing and clicking, and also for touch.

Several major hybrid interfaces have either been rolled out already, or have been announced. Here are the biggest and most interesting UIs that function both as point-and-click PC interfaces and multi-touch tablet UIs:


The first Gmail interface with a preview pane was Google's online interface for iPhone and Android tablets. The preview pane works great for tablets because instead of moving forward into and backward out of each message, you simple work your way down a list of messages, always seeing the currently selected one on the right.

Google this week rolled out a "Labs" project that gives a preview pane option for PC browser Gmail users. It looks a lot like the tablet version.

One telling feature is that none of the buttons are too small for fingers. Even forward and back arrow buttons in the new view are tall enough and big enough to accommodate a finger, even though they will be used (for now) with a mouse and mouse pointer. There is plenty of real estate around each clickable or selectable option.

Google is clearly moving in the direction of one unified design for both PCs and touch devices.


Google also rolled out a mouse-touch hybrid interface for its new social network, Google+. Throughout the Google+ site, designers implemented the spacing, button sizes and touch-friendly features of a good tablet interface.

But a feature called the "circle editor" is by far the most tablet-friendly interface currently available online. To use it, you drag-and-drop the people you know from a list into "circles" you create, each circle representing a sub-network of "Friends" or "Family" or "People Who Owe Me Money" -- whatever you want.

Dropping a friend into a circle creates a little dance of activity in the circle itself. If the contact is already in the circle, the name box goes flying back to its place. If the person is accepted into the circle, other friends there suddenly appear. A circular thumbnail of that person goes rolling into place, and a +1 goes flying to the top. If you select multiple contacts, then drag and drop them into a circle, the interface bundles them all up into a pile held together by a paperclip. When you delete a circle, it suddenly drops to the bottom of the screen before rolling off into oblivion.

These little animations are right out of the touch-tablet research manual, confirming actions with subtle, appealing reactions.

And you can see how natural this interface is for touch by watching this video. It's a TV show that featured Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian demonstrating Google+ with a giant touch screen.

Microsoft Windows 8

The biggest and boldest launch of the hybrid interface will be Microsoft Windows 8. As I reported back in June, Windows 8 will ship with a default user interface that's optimized for touch computing, even for the majority using it with a mouse on a desktop PC.

The default Windows 8 interface will be the same one that ships on the touch-tablet devices that will run Windows 8. The main screen will be taken over by "tiles" -- giant boxes that function like interactive buttons, displaying relevant data from the application or document.

You'll browse your applications and files by using a "swipe" gesture. Deleting, moving and other basic actions will also happen via gestures, which can be executed with either mouse or finger.

Applications will default to either running full screen, or running two at a time side-by-side.

Here's a look at Windows 8's hybrid user interface.

OS X Lion?

The Mac world is more advanced in the direction of multi-touch computing than Windows. The reason is that Apple has been moving aggressively to phase out mice in favor of multi-touch Trackpads.

While both Microsoft's and Apple's vision for the interim hybrid interface is similar, Apple goes further by actually using touch, albeit not on the screen yet.

The most radical and objectionable of these changes showed up in the new Lion version of Mac OS X. On a touch tablet, when you touch and hold the top of the screen and swipe downward, you're pushing the page down, so you can view higher on the page. In other words, swiping down takes you up in a document. Apple added this behavior as the default for scrolling with a Trackpad. It's the opposite of what you'd expect with a mouse, where you grab the scrollbar and drag down to go down in the document.

The new OS X has many other new tablet-like hybrid features, including full-screen applications, Expose window groupings that are browsed using gestures, a Launchpad feature where new screens are added when icons exceed available space on a page and others.

Apple also rolled out a series of new touch gestures.

So that's how the industry is going to manage the transition: Give us touch user interfaces before we're using touch. And when the time comes to transition to desktop touch computing, we'll already be familiar with the interface, and the applications that support touch will already be plentiful.

The user interface for the under-powered tablet will rise, and the more abstract but powerful PC interface will be relegated to the periphery.

I, for one, welcome our new primitive overlords.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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