Al Monro

He doesn't want you to give up your keyboard and mouse, but the CEO of New Zealand's NextWindow wants you to touch your computer a lot more.

Touch computing is hot: Consider Apple's iPhone, Microsoft's Surface computer and the soon-to-arrive Windows 7. Optical touch-screen maker NextWindow Ltd. is helping drive this technology -- and making a handsome profit from it. CEO Al Monro, who joined NextWindow in 2001 after 18 years at IBM, spurred the commercialization of touch technology that has helped the privately held company grow its revenue 600% in its most recent fiscal year.

How does touch-screen technology work? [There are] six main types of touch screens. The two most popular are resistive and capacitive. Resistive is what you typically see in controlled environments, such as a point-of-sale terminal at a restaurant. It's a film on top of glass, so it is subject to damage. Capacitive is what you see on things like airport check-in kiosks.

Projected capacitive is used on the iPhone. Surface acoustic wave [technology] covers many of the same areas as capacitive. Infrared is the oldest: IBM uses this in its point-of-sale devices, as do Japanese subway ticketing machines.

Our technology is optical touch, and it's one of the newer ones. We put two sensors at the top of a screen that look across a pool of light. When you touch the screen, you create a blockage, and the blockage's location is triangulated.

What are the advantages of optical touch? As a screen increases in size, all of the other technologies increase in price -- some proportionally, some exponentially. Not our technology. We merely need to move our sensors further apart.

Our touch screens are used in HP's TouchSmart PCs and Dell's Studio One. They picked us because we can retain image clarity. This is important, because you're going to watch DVDs [and] YouTube videos and look at photos on that screen. The other technologies, except for infrared, all use a film or coating on the glass, whereas our screens are clear.

The third advantage is that users can use a finger, a hard or soft stylus, even a paintbrush on our screens.

How was NextWindow started? The company was formed in 2000 by a serial inventor with a background in a lot of different technologies, including underwater acoustics. He's John Newton, our CTO.

I got involved when I was asked by the investors to see if the technology was worth commercializing. They wanted to license the technology. But I said, "Guys, you can't license a technology you haven't really developed yet." And so we became a manufacturer, the first to really commercialize optical touch.

For the first three to four years, we were doing overlays for very large plasma and LCD displays and big kiosks, some as large as 103 inches in size.

But you were envisioning that you could eventually get into PCs and laptops? Right from the start, we had a program to miniaturize the technology down for the volume markets. Our first breakthrough was being able to put our touch screens into LCD TVs as small as 32 inches.

In late 2005, we showed a prototype of a 19-in. touch-screen monitor to HP. We were lucky; we had a relationship with HP on another project. When that got canceled, we found the group that was looking at [developing] a new all-in-one PC with touch.

By that time, we had already shipped 2,000 to 4,000 large touch screens into the market. We'd proved our technology was very robust. But we were certainly new to the volume game.

How much are you shipping now? HP and Dell are our main customers, but we also have some LCD monitor makers. I would hope that we produce a million touch screens this year. [NextWindow produced about 400,000 last year.]

We expect to see a big uplift with Windows 7. With Windows 7 offering built-in multitouch, all of the major monitor makers will have to have a touch product in their range.

Right now, we produce interactive touch panels that go on top of LCD and plasma screens. Ideally, we would like to have relationships with the LCD panel manufacturers so that we can integrate the touch straight into the display. Customers will have much better optics.

How much more would an LCD monitor with your touch technology cost? It's a question that we all ask, because it's going to help determine the penetration of touch. If a touch-screen monitor is an extra $500, you're not going to buy it.

The other important factor: if there are some really cool apps put out by Google, Facebook, Adobe or Microsoft themselves for Windows 7. So far, it's mostly smaller ISVs.

Will touch replace the keyboard and mouse? You'll see bloggers complain, "Oh, I'm not going to stand here with my hands up all day." Of course you're not. You're going to still keep using the keyboard and mouse. But there are going to be some things that are much more intuitive to do with touch.

So, how fast are people learning how to use touch screens? Back in the early 2000s, you would put a touch screen in a shopping mall and people would stand back from it. So we told developers to scream at people to come and touch it by putting big icons with hands on them, or the words "TOUCH ME" in big letters. Even then, people would stand back, uncomfortable.

That has just fundamentally changed. A lot of credit has to go to the iPhone. It really has changed our industry. People are now coming to expect it. I'm also really excited by the launch of Windows 7.

Could fear of the H1N1 flu virus or other germs prevent people from adopting touch screens? Not a lot of people besides me use my laptop keyboard. Same with my PC's touch screen. This is more of a worry for public kiosks than the consumer market.

What about encouraging compulsive behavior among touch-screen users? You already hear about iPhone owners who can't help but clean their phones all the time. [Laughs.] I would invest in companies making Kleenex or wipe cloths.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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