Do touchscreen desktops really make all that much sense?
Okay, fine. I admit it. When Microsoft’s Surface Studio debuted, I was greatly intrigued, even holding a small sip of breath to control a child-like giddiness not yet felt since receiving my first iPhone (though the AirPods definitely came close). From its massively brilliant screen, to the industrial luster of its zero-gravity arm, it was everything I had come to expect from a beautiful desktop computer made by Apple—not a company best known for software used to type up your homework.
What just happened? I remember thinking to myself.
In the immersive moments of the Surface Studio demo, my mind raced between awe and panic. How did Microsoft BEAT Apple at BOTH innovation and design? It wasn’t really a question I cared to answer there in the moment; I was too busy wondering how difficult it might be to ditch Apple’s ecosystem and embrace the biggest software company of my awkward adolescent years. It took a few weeks, but eventually I was able to dig up enough nitty-gritty on the Surface Studio to set my mind at ease about a machine whose form factor came with some heavy concessions: an insane entry price (the base begins at $3000) that makes the iMac seem like a bargain basement deal; dated I/O interfaces and mobile-grade internals; and, of course, having Windows as an operating system.
Still, the attempt at dethroning Apple’s iMac as the king of all-in-one value was impressive, and I wasn’t yet ready to dismiss the Surface Studio completely. True enough, curiosity and an incredulous sense of awe had compelled me to visit a Microsoft store in person—just to be sure. For me, the experience was a bit of an unmasking, the collapse of gimmicky pretension under the failed delivery of an implied reality where the Surface Studio would become a seamless creative tool: the accuracy and latency of the pen is far less than adequate for any serious graphic artist (let alone those who rely on such tools for their income); and the transition between the standard viewing angle to the drafting position requires an amount of desk space which often demands the user push the machine backward to make room. This makes for an awkward juggling act between moving the user’s chair, while palming the keyboard and mouse to make room for the screen—pretty much the most inefficient transition ever. And tempting as it may be to dismiss the lack of fluidity in the screen’s transition, I’m reminded of the importance of the smaller details. It’s often the little things that either make or break any experience; the slightest hiccup in convenience for a product whose entire selling point is convenience spells disaster.
I wanted to like the Surface Studio. I mean, I really really wanted to like it. I wanted to feel that Microsoft had finally saw the light, that it was finally proposing serious hardware challenges for Apple users to decide between equally appealing products and ecosystems. But, ultimately, I left feeling disappointed. While the vision set forth by the Surface Studio seems clear, Microsoft’s lack of follow-through leaves the machine feeling less like a high-end creative powerhouse, and more like niche marketing hype.
As mobile spaces struggle to mature beyond the perfected form factor of smart phones, heated competition in the personal computing markets have led to a scramble for the next paradigm shift in the desktop user experience. But AR and VR are still infants, and the early battle for their relevance has left desktop users without a timely wow factor that seeks to change the fundamental monotony of everyday workhorse computing. And despite the let-down of Microsoft’s Surface Studio, its very existence raises the stakes in the paradigm debate between Apple’s no-touchscreen iMac philosophy and Microsoft’s all-in approach on touchscreen PCs.
For all the criticism surrounding Apple’s notoriously “closed” ecosystem and downright arrogance in claiming to know what customers want, the fruit company has an uncanny knack for being able to say “no” precisely when it should. And at a time when it seems that touchscreen input on laptops and desktops may just be the next big, Apple’s resistance is the right choice for a few simple reasons.
Touchscreen Desktops Are New And Customers Don’t Always Know What They Want.
Remember when 3D televisions were hot? Every major competitor in the market was rushing to crank out TV’s that required people to wear overpriced glasses while lounging on their couch at home. It was an idea doomed to fail for lack of data. No one had actually tried to understand if the consumer desire for 3D TVs was a valid one and the bet was made solely on the momentum of movie theater hype.
As 3D content hit the big screen, theatre profit margins grew on showings that asked patrons to cough up another $5 for special glasses—and the larger market took note. Greedy electronics giants, frothing at the mouth for a chance to inflate TV prices, bit hard on the bait that consumer hype in theaters could drive dollars toward expensive hardware at home. It didn’t work. The first wave of 3D TVs crashed and burned along with their ridiculously bloated price tags.
Sometimes what seems like a good idea in theory, doesn’t work well in a real market where scientific and cultural nuances are at play: watching television is a historically passive event, and having to wear special glasses at home appeared to be a greater burden than could be justified by the content experience; also, experts had to later explain the common phenomenon where people would experience headaches and nausea while viewing 3D content for long periods of time.
It’s a classic example of how new doesn’t necessarily mean better, and how, what consumer’s THINK they want isn’t always the best indicator for areas of market growth. That’s why Apple’s caution about creating a touchscreen PC seems more like sound judgement than a missed opportunity.
Let’s get into the specific details about why touchscreen desktops don’t make sense.
The Dead Arm Problem.
Apple correctly identified the odds of having both a vertical and horizontal plane of input for a desktop experience. Using a desktop involves a fixed seated position where users interface with a vertical screen of consumption and a horizontal plane of input. Beyond the needs of creative professionals, there are very few input commands apart from the closing and moving of windows (more on this later). But even if one were to imagine the experience of using many different multi-touch commands, try to imagine holding your arm up to a vertical screen for extended periods of time. I don’t know about you, but I don’t go to the gym enough to have that kind of stamina. This is what I call the “Dead Arm Problem”.
Although touch might work for closing the occasional window, expanding the vertical input commands to increase interaction time with the screen presents a serious challenge for both developers and users. Gravity is the main culprit here. This is why a horizontal mode of input via mouse and keyboard is much more appropriate for the desktop experience.
The Dead Arm Problem doesn’t occur with mobile devices because touching the screen for longer periods of time is easier. Users can quickly manipulate the plane of interaction from vertical to horizontal with the flick of a wrist. This fluid and effortless transition of input is further aided by the small screen size, which allows the thumbs to span the entirety of the screen. In the case of a large desktop experience, touching an expansive screen means stretching the arms far, wide, and upward—much more effort.
In fact, Microsoft clearly demonstrates an understanding of The Dead Arm Problem in its gamble on creative professionals. With a lack of significant reasons to touch a desktop screen in the first place, this strategy seeks to ensuring that users feel significantly compelled to change the screen’s orientation in order to make the dynamic work convincingly enough—hence, the appeal to graphic artists. In this way, only by allowing the screen to assume a drafting angle can Microsoft solve the issue of expanding touch input on a desktop machine without overly burdening users.
Reality Check. It might sound like a lame rationale, but again, it’s the little things. I have enough of a hard time keeping my current iMac smudge-free when it’s NOT a touchscreen. I cringe to think about the amount of time I might spend cleaning my screen if I were to use it for input.
A Mouse Will Do Just Fine.
A lack of utility for the everyday user points to another serious issue with touchscreen desktops: most people won’t be using it all that often. Remember that Microsoft had to invent a computer that turned into a drafting table just to create enough utility for a touchscreen PC. For the majority of average users, closing and moving windows would make up the bulk of their touch inputs.
Both in theory and reality only specialized software presents enough opportunity for a variety of touch-based input commands. With a myriad of complicated tools, options, and actions available in professional applications, such advanced commands could be made easier with multi-touch inputs. However, few applications—if any—used by the average person could feature a variety of commands that surpass the ease of simply clicking with a mouse.
Simply put: touchscreen desktops could never be mainstream. That’s why the Surface Studio aims for creative professionals. It’s also why its super expensive. Average users are not going to pay the high premium on pervasive touchscreen capabilities they’ll only use to close and move windows.
The Bottom Line.
Touchscreen desktops are a total niche market. Microsoft knows this, and it’s reflected in the both the price and consumer target of the Surface Studio. And while Apple computing products have been famously geared toward creative professionals, in recent years the tech giant has made strides to create PCs and mobile devices that resonate with mainstream users. This is not to say that pro users wouldn’t be interested in a touchscreen desktop made by Apple, but the lack of consumer market interest wouldn’t carry enough clout to force Apple’s hand.
The truth is that touch-based input on future desktop class machines will not come in the form of 2D interactive windows of glass. At issue is not the integrity of touch itself for desktop machines; the issue is with the context of touch. By their very nature, screens require a fixed orientation for user viewing and input. In the future, more dynamic orientations will be made possible, and the context of touch as an input method for desktops will change. As AR and VR continue to mature, their implementation in the realm of powerful home computing will have users touching holographic inputs rendered in mid-air, rather than on screens. But for now, we are limited to a desktop experience within the context of 2D screens, and for that reason, Apple is right: touchscreen desktops don’t make sense.
Also published on Medium.