This is even more the case with onscreen keyboards. When we type, even on a full-sized keyboard, our finger is at any point poised to press any of several keys. It is only that difference between touching and pressing that allows us to make sure we are hitting the right key. The smaller the keys, the more this comes into play. We like that with physical buttons we can run our fingers over every button, knowing that none of them will do anything until we actually press it. The buttons on most devices are even made with this in mind. Most mobile devices have very stiff buttons with very little play, and a very clear physical feedback when you have activated it. You know exactly when it was you hit the key, and more importantly, you know when you haven’t hit it, but are just touching it.
This is why a great many people describe touchscreens as annoying, imprecise, or confusing. Because they take every touch as a press. You can’t rest your thumbs on a virtual screen keyboard, and then only press the keys you intend to use, because touching is pressing. You can’t press the “s” instead of the “d” just by rolling the edge of your thumb a little, because the touchscreen doesn’t know you didn’t mean to touch the “d” you finger, however, does. A touchscreen requires a precision and clarity of conscious thought that our forgiving buttons don’t. You have to chose which virtual button you want on the the screen, before you move your hand, and then touch it, instead of idly caressing the buttons until you feel the one that is right.
You will notice that this principal even extends past the handheld to the desktop. The mechanism we use to point, and the mechanism we use to select are separate. The mouse will let you hover that pointer around the desktop all day long, with your finger resting on the button, waiting until you actually press it, instead of just touching it. Even digitizer tablets have pressure sensitivity, so that you can touch, but not press. We like to keep our options open until the last instant that we commit, and a touchscreen doesn’t allow that. It wants you to know what you are doing before you ever lay a finger on it. It doesn’t care if you meant to select that icon or not. It was the icon closest to your finger when it touched the screen, so it must have been what you intended to hit.
So what does this mean for the iPhone that started this whole conversation? Who knows? People have a funny way of letting Apple tell them that what they have done their entire life is wrong, and they need to adapt to fit the way Apple wants them to work, rather than Apple making a device that works the way people do. Maybe Apple will pull it off again, and people will get over their hatred of the touchscreen just to be rewarded with the newest piece of shiny Apple glitz. That said, Apple is definitely trying to drag people back to where this whole smartphone thing started, which is definitely not the direction they have chosen. I suspect that until someone starts implementing some of the recent technologies from companies like Immersion, that allow touchscreens to provide tactile feedback, and tell the difference between touch and press, any touchscreen device is going to have limited appeal, and a frustrated user base.
But then I’ve been wrong before, especially when it comes to what people will accept from Apple.