Don’t Give Me the Finger… Apps

Finger touch friendlyLike many other editorials, this is another one of those that has been brewing for a while and finally, I decided to sit down write it. I know I’m in the minority because I prefer substance over style. I tend to prefer programs that work and are small in size over programs that look great but much larger in size. As long as it works, I don’t really mind even if it isn’t terribly good looking. So, hopefully that can give you an idea of what I’m like.

Now, before anyone starts bashing me for being anti-Apple or iPhone, let me explain that I am not anti-Apple and certainly anti-iPhone (would love to get one but can’t afford it but if Apple offers me the opportunity to test out their stuff, I’m all for it!). I do not own any Apple products except iTunes, but then that’s not really considered as a true Apple product. With that out of the way, I’ll continue on with my editorial.

Don’t get me wrong. I really like what Apple has done for the PDA and smartphone industry. At a time when everything seemed at a standstill and the industry was stale, Apple came out with the iPhone and blew everyone away with their finger touch technology. Remember how we were wowed by the album flipping, zooming capabilities and automatic orientation flipping? Yes, I was too. But, now that the excitement has worn off, I’m obviously not as enthusiastic about it, especially when practically every (okay, NOT EVERYONE yet) developer for any mobile platform is coming up with finger friendly touch software so that we can all flip through our album covers, etc. Come on, it seems that the newest update to a lot of programs out there now consists of finger friendly touch support. Forget all the bug fixes and new features since it’s now “in” to have finger friendly touch support. Jump on the giving me the finger…, uh, support, bandwagon.

Like I said, it’s a very cool idea that Apple has come out that has everyone scrambling to make their apps more like the iPhone, either via the interface, the touch support and whatever else, but there’s got to be a line drawn somewhere. Are we all suddenly part of the herd of Apple wannabees that follow the direction at the whim of Steve Jobs? That’s the problem that I have with this whole iPhone craze.

The PDA industry was stagnant for years before the iPhone came out. Now that the iPhone has shown the way in terms of innovation or new ideas, we’re back to being complacent and only just follow the direction that iPhone has provided. Where’s the innovation? Rather than follow the leader, where’s the competition, the innovation and battle for supremacy? The sad thing I’ve found about the whole iPhone explosion is that rather than shaking the industry up and forcing everyone to come up with something that will topple or rival it, everyone seems to offer similar features to the iPhone and or the “iPhone killer” that is practically be an iPhone wannabee or clone. Hmm. Yes, the iPhone has shaken up the industry and forced everyone to make some changes but now, no one seems to come up with something that is exciting and new that will turn heads. That’s what I’m saying. We’ve innovated with the touch and now we’re stuck again.

To really clarify my stance, I admit that I’m not that “into” the whole touch idea to begin with. When I first got my true PDA device. It was a Palm Zire 71 PDA device, I wasn’t excited about inputting via Graffiti 2 (I still struggle with it), but I dealt with it. Although I liked the touchscreen and being able to use the stylus to navigate the screen and the Palm OS, I hated inputting via Graffiti 2 either in the graffiti input area or directly on the screen. When animatorsoft came out with the mini-keyboard which enabled me to input by tapping on the screen in modified a QWERTY keyboard layout, I was excited! It worked, but I quickly realized that there are limitations to having such virtual keyboards. After using the Zire 71 for several years before I got my Treo 650, which was really the first device that I truly loved. It had touchscreen but I could input via the QWERTY keyboard and capable of doing a wide variety of tasks. The main thing hampering that was the limited RAM, lack of Wi-Fi support. It was almost the perfect device had it been supplied with the necessary power and hardware to support its features and components. I still stand by that opinion. Yes, I prefer keyboards and buttons and keys over a pure touch screen device. There. I said it. With that in mind, I continue with my opinion of why I don’t touch screens or why they aren’t for me.

Here’s my list of why I don’t like finger friendly apps:

1 – Could potentially break or crack screen when I press too hard typing on virtual keyboard
2 – Tend to get a lot of incorrect input detection especially with virtual keyboard
3 – Definitely get annoyed at finding dirty and greasy screens
4 – There’s very limited navigation options onscreen (software dependant) compared to having keys or buttons that will perform specific functions or tasks
5 – Screen space of mobile devices way too limited for finger touch input when my finger takes up 1/10th of the screen.

1 – Cracked screens.

Although it’s a great idea to have a virtual keyboard on the screen and maximize the screen area of a device rather than have it taken up by physical keys, it doesn’t really work very well in practice, at least for me. Here are my thoughts why.

First, when “typing” on the screen, I forget that I am pressing down on the very delicate and sensitive touch screen. I have caught myself pressing a bit harder on the screen when inputting text via the virtual keyboard when certain characters were either incorrectly typed or did not show up. That’s obviously because I am more of a physical keyboard user and forget that I’m typing on a virtual screen rather than on real keys. This could easily cause me to crack the screen so I ended up not using the virtual keyboard as much as I originally thought.

2 – Incorrect text input

Second, being a virtual keyboard, the software does make mistakes when determining whether you are pressing or touching a portion of the screen. Heck, even with physical keys, sometimes they don’t register when we press on them. So, when you are lightly touching the screen, sometimes, okay, maybe more than sometimes, the software may think you’re pressing more than once on the screen when you meant to only touch or press on it once. As I’ve noticed in my personal experience, this gets frustrating very quickly. I did try typing on an iPod Touch, which offers a similar virtual keyboard to the iPhone and ended up with similar results and experiences to what I had on the Zire 71 with animatorsoft’s mini-keyboard.

3 – Dirty and scratched screens

Third, being someone who is very picky about the screen, it really bugs me when I find that it’s dirty. Even with a screen protector on, it irks me to find that there’s a smear or speck on the screen so I make the effort to keep it nice and clean. With finger friendly apps, I know that the screen will be much dirtier with lots of smears and specks that will drive me crazy. Since most of us use our fingers to touch a variety of stuff including food, imagine all that grease on the screen. Yuck. That will not do for me.

4 – Limited software dependent navigation options

Fourth, as mentioned already, I find that it’s likely better for me that there are buttons assigned to do certain tasks rather than relying on a virtual touchscreen for input. Sometimes, software won’t necessarily work as well as we’d hope. So, during those times when the virtual screen isn’t detecting the taps correctly, having physical keys and buttons may be a somewhat better alternative. Of course, if your device has crashed, no button pressing will do anything either. But, many times, you can use a button to navigate to another application or screen rather than being stuck with the limited options on the screen. In order to go to another program or do something else, you will likely need to rely on the available virtual buttons or options rather than being able to press a hardware button preassigned to do a specific task.

Think about it this way. If our laptop or desktop computers suddenly stopped working, imagine how much work, extra taps, time it would take to input text or information onto the computer. To put it more bluntly, think about only inputting via your laptop’s touchpad for everything. That would mean, bringing up the virtual keyboard every time you need to input text and tapping on the virtual keyboard for every text. I don’t know about you, but it would take me 10 times longer (if not more) to do the same text input onto my computer. But then, I am more comfortable with the QWERTY keys (and my handwriting has greatly suffered).

5 – Very limited screen space or real estate for finger navigation

Regardless of how large the screen space or area is on the iPhone or any other pocketable mobile device, the area is still very limited for your finger. An extra inch of space may be HUGE for the device but in terms of your finger, it doesn’t really give that much extra room for it to move around. Now, if we’re talking about the stylus, which is limited to a tiny and exact point, then, the extra inch is HUGE. THAT is why the stylus (regardless of what everyone says) is still a better touch screen navigation tool than a finger.

Although our laptops have a touch pad which can somewhat replace a mouse, it certainly isn’t the best. To move from one corner of the screen to another quickly, it’s very unlikely you can do it in one sweep. Normally, you’ll need to swipe it to the edge, lift it up and do it a few more times. That is also the main reason I don’t use the touchpad as much either when the mouse can do a much better job.

Seriously, there is a reason why we have the keyboard and mouse around because they work very well. Nothing really has de-throned from and for a good reason. Sure, we have gotten so used to and adjusted to using them for so many years that it’s extra difficult to re-learn a new method or tool but I think it’s more than that. I think it’s because they have become almost perfected (maybe that’s not the right word) that there isn’t any more newer designs that really improve them. But again, that’s my opinion. Needless to say, finger touch inputting isn’t really for me. They may work fine for order entry at restaurants and business establishments but for document and office related work, they still have a long ways to go.

After saying all that, if the iPhone could support wireless keyboards, then that changes a lot and yes, I’d be very interested. See? I’m not anti-iPhone.

Now, if the screen were about the size of a laptop screen, well, then, we are talking Tablet PCs, which is already reality, right?

What I’m trying to say is that although the touch screen can be very useful, I believe that other methods and tools are much better at it. I still type with a keyboard, use a mouse and a stylus for my touch screen Treos. And I believe I will do so for a long time. Call me old fashioned.

Until software has advanced where I can “think” what I want to do and it’s done, I don’t think that there is a valid replacement for the often cumbersome QWERTY keyboard. Sure, we may get crackberry thumbs, but I think we can also start getting iPhone fingers too. ;) But we all have our preferences. Just don’t give me the finger…apps. ;)

What do you think? Do you like the finger friendly software and apps? Or are you like me who prefer the buttons and stylus tapping instead? Or maybe you have a totally different idea? Please share in the comments below!

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