I’m happy to introduce first-time contributor, long time commenter L.M. Lloyd to BlackBerry Cool’s roster with his “AfterThought” column. His first submission delves into the world of, you guessed it, interfaces on mobile devices. Be sure to check back regularly for new AfterThought’s. And let’s all welcome Mr. Lloyd with open arms. Group hug.
The recent talk of the iPhone got me thinking about interfaces in general, and touchscreen interfaces in specific. The touchscreen interface has been around for a long time, and in all its incarnations, it has always been the bastard stepchild of interfaces. Whether it is on kiosks, ATMs, PDAs, phones, or universal remotes, just about everyone has given it a go, and just about every time it has ended up being replaced with a real button, or some other physical interface.
The most recent, and also most relevant, example of this has been in the PDA/Smartphone market. It all started with Palm. Sure, there had been other electronic organizers and handheld computers before that, but Palm was the first company to really get mainstream acceptance in the market. The PalmPilot had seven buttons, four of which launched programs, two of which were for up and down, and one for power. Everything else worked through a touchscreen. It was a pretty good configuration, and a lot of people used it happily for many years.
However, then a funny thing happened, competition showed up in the form of Windows CE devices. They were similar in shape and size to the Palm devices, but they added one physical feature, a directional pad instead of the up and down buttons. Much later, even the Palm devices would be updated to have a D-Pad. Now, at this point you might question why a touchscreen device needs a directional pad (or even up or down buttons for that matter), but we’ll come back to that later.
Then something not unexpected, but none the less interesting started happening. Phones were integrated into the devices. At first, they were just modules you could plug into the PDA that would let you use them as phones, but pretty soon they were being integrated into the PDA directly. The first of these just let you dial directly on the touchscreen from a phone app, but pretty soon companies like Kyocera started adding a physical numeric keypad to the device. This whole time the device staying the same size, or even getting smaller, and that screen shrinking more and more, as the touchscreen interface became less and less of a focus.