Prepare for the Touch-Screen Backlash

I have to admit this won’t be the first — or last — blog post about a backlash against touch-screen phones. I’ve lost count of the number of articles I’ve seen in recent months about the suitability of touch interfaces for particular applications and the extent to which the iPhone phenomenon will (or won’t) drive touch screens into the mass market.

However, the recent launch of the ZTE-manufactured T-Mobile Vairy on prepaid tariffs made me think: who does touch appeal to? When Palm heralded its touch-screen Pilot PDA in the 1990s, it created a product designed for a very specific purpose: basic personal information, with applications such as a calendar, address book and so on.

For a long time after that the resistive touch screen remained confined to a pretty specific set of devices. It moved from the PDA onto a few niche mobile phones but was largely confined to those running Palm OS and what is now Windows Mobile. It was perfect for accessing fiddly applications like a spreadsheet on small screens but it simply wasn’t suitable for mass consumer deployment. (Microsoft’s still wrestling with this problem today, but that’s another story).

Apple’s launch of the iPhone changed all that. I’d argue that we’ve yet to see technology that makes data input as intuitive on a touch screen as it is on a hardware keypad, but for simple voice and text users, the iPhone was irresistible.

So what changed exactly? Very, very simply speaking, it was two things: screen technology and software. Apple used an expensive capacitive touch screen which offered an incredibly vibrant and accurate display. It introduced “finger touch” control, rather than needing a stylus. This was coupled with a highly capable software platform that made the most of the abundant processing power and the falling cost of memory.

In short, Apple benefited from being a late mover. In complete contrast to the ethos underlying Symbian, Apple created an unparalleled best-in-class platform for a single segment of very high-tier, niche devices. It wasn’t trying to meet the requirements of a range of devices at different prices. Apple’s competence in user interface design and an established service offering in iTunes had big parts to play, but screen and software were the building blocks.

But the inevitable consequence of such success is an abundance of “me too” products that take the idea and try to deliver it to a wider audience. My colleague Ben was bang on when he predicted that 2008 would be “the year of the crap touch screen”. My concern though is that 2008 will be nothing compared to 2009.

The T-Mobile Vairy isn’t a terrible device. It’s an incredible device with an amazing retail price of less than €55. But the questions to ask are: “Who does it appeals to and what use case is it trying to address?” Consumers in that segment of the prepaid market are voice and text users. The iPhone was successful because it was exceptional at things beyond voice and text. But its exceptional nature came with significant investment in components, software and services, and a €600 price tag.

Ultra-low-end touch-screen devices will fall a long way short of expectations when it comes to fulfilling everyday tasks like text messaging. If we continue trying to recreate the iPhone phenomenon at all costs in every segment, we must prepare for a touch-screen backlash.