Multitouch is a Red Herring

Tonight was spent hanging out on my computer (an iMac), doing a couple of things. I wrote some notes in a text editor, browsed the web a bit, collected a few images and goofed off designing a web page in Sketch (all the while listening to music).

I kind of can’t imagine having an evening like this on iOS. Certainly not on an iPhone (because its screen is too small), but I also can’t imagine it on an iPad, even with a physical keyboard. The sort of thing I did tonight had me rapidly bouncing around multiple apps, often using them simultaneously. Browse some images in Safari, drag them into a Dock folder, pick the ones I like from Finder and drop them into my Sketch file. Arrange the images in Sketch; nope, re-arrange them so the big one’s at the top; nope, put it on the bottom; ok, move all the images to the left; good. Pick a layer and change its colour using the eye dropper on one of those images; ah that’s not right, pick the next one; yeah that’s it.

Can you imagine doing anything even remotely like that even on a big ass iPad with a keyboard? I’ve waited for years to see something great like this, like “hanging out” and mucking around on an iOS device, but I’m still waiting.

A lie I keep telling myself is multi-touch is so fantastic. It’s amazing, right? You can use all your fingers (and then some!), to uhm, touch your screen. To do what, I still don’t know. Almost ten years of iOS and about the best multitouch app I can think of is Maps: it’s got two-finger-gestures!

After all this time, after all this waiting and lying to myself, I think multi-touch has been a big red herring. I’ve always looked at it and seen potential, like, this is the year of the multitouch desktop but it’s never materialized. iOS has always felt incredibly stunted to me, but I kept telling myself, we just need time to re-imagine software, we’re all just stuck in the desktop mindset, it’ll come.

I don’t think it’s coming.

At its finest, I think iOS is a fantastic context sensitive information graphics system (as discussed in Bret Victor’s Magic Ink essay). It’s always with you, it’s location-aware, and it’s usually got an internet connection. Mix all this up with a zippy processor, and you can get a lot of graphical bang with very little interaction buck.

I almost wish the iPhone didn’t have any input at all. I wish it was just a big screen (with network, GPS, etc). That’d force app makers to make honest-to-god context-aware software. It’d show you relevant information, without expecting you to poke and prod with your fingers. It’d be powered by all kinds of data it currently has, but wastes. Those emails you got about a housewarming party would power the device to show you Maps locations when needed, calendar events when needed, shopping options when needed.

It wouldn’t have to pretend to act like a desktop computer, it wouldn’t promise to replace it. It wouldn’t be a “consumption” device, but it would be an information device.

Of course I’m exaggerating; you’d still need some input to OK things, sometimes type things, etc. This is an exercise of the imagination more than anything. Yes, there are new sorts of things you can create on an iPhone, but much of it feels imprecise or ready-made. Yes, you can squeeze creativity out of just about anything, but that doesn’t mean it’s tailored for creating.

Back to my futzing around tonight: so what? I think what I’m trying to say is I’m realizing iOS is not nearly as exciting as I used to tell myself it was. There are neat personal-information related things you could do with it, but beyond that, what kind of computing can I do with it? All of my thoughts for making new software has been bottlenecked by “well, phones + tablets are the future, so how do I make this work on a phone?” and I think it’s time I stop asking myself that question.

I don’t think a keyboard, mouse, and 27 inch rectangle are the future of computing either, but I think they’re better than fingers on glass. For now, that’s where I think I want my computing, my designing, to be. iOS may prove me wrong, but I’m not holding my breath.

Speed of Light