Multi-touch is the future of computing – from phones to tablets. And the future is almost here -- or, maybe, it's already here. But what free software platforms can provide a viable alternative to catch up with and rival Apple?
Since 2001, Microsoft has been trying to sell Tablet PCs running the same Windows XP user interface as ordinary computers but they never really took off. What Apple has shown us with the iPhone and iPad is that only a user interface designed from the ground up for touch screens can live up to the expectations we have of tablets: intuitive, fast and fun. But a couple of free software platforms are shaping up to become viable alternatives to Apple's walled garden. I'm going to look at Android, Ubuntu's Unity and MeeGo.
How did it all start?
Interfaces evolved over time. Here is a brief history:
- In the 1960s there were only huge mainframe computers that users accessed via remote terminals.
- During the (late) 1970s Personal Computers arrived – the first computers a private individual could own and place on his or her desk! Just like mainframes, they were operated by a keyboard for the next ten years.
- Around 1984 the mouse arrived, along with graphical user interfaces with windows and menus. At the beginning they were treated as a toy (just as the iPad is today) but the WIMP (window, icon, menu, pointing device) interface slowly became the new standard for the vast majority of computing needs.
Since then, not much has really changed. The first two phases lasted about a decade each. And now, twenty five years into the third phase, we are still stuck with the mouse. But I think that the computers we are going to interact with on a daily basis will soon change that a lot.
It's all about touch
Actually they already have started to change. What I mean is iPhone and Android smartphones, TV set-top boxes, ticket or information terminals, etc. They are all essentially computers, and quite powerful ones too, currently using around 1GHz processors and 512MB of RAM. These computers are widely available here and other places making them very accessible. So we have these powerful and user-friendly devices but at the same time we keep interacting with our main PCs through a mouse. And then we start dragging windows out of the way, navigating menus, creating folders, copying and renaming files, sending files as emails from one computer to another, etc. Effectively madness.
But soon post-PC computers like smartphones and tablets are going to perform all the tasks most people need their PCs for today. Just as the mouse once replaced the command line for most users, these multi-touch devices with various screen sizes are going to replace PCs in almost, if not all, use cases. This is going to happen in the next few years -- and it's in fact happening now. That's why everybody is working hard to ready their platforms for the post-PC world.
This includes, among other things,two things:
- a radically new user interface that is designed for multi-touch from the ground up
- eventually getting rid of the file metaphor which has just become too cumbersome to deal with in the age of the internet and the massive amounts of data everyone is dealing with today. Whatever else it is that's going to spare the user from messing with files, it is going to involve the cloud.
So let's have a look at the players today:
Apple: Unfortunately for free software, starting with the iPhone, Apple has been the forerunner on touchscreen devices. They decided to start with relatively low-power iPhones and later iPads which run iOS, a slimmed-down variant of Mac OS X. But as I have argued more extensively on my blog, already, the next major Mac OS X release, Lion, might be suited very well for larger and more powerful touchscreen computers. And even if Lion is not up and runnning by Summer, it's not going to be long until iOS and Mac OS X merge, providing a very compelling platform for developers as well as users.
Ubuntu: Adapting their desktop OS, the Ubuntu team is working on the new Unity shell. Shuttleworth said that Unity would become the default interface in Ubuntu 11.04. He added then that he believes that multitouch is the future and that the "files and folders way of thinking is completely broken". Note that the iPad isn't using the file-metaphor either, although it is currently suffering from the lack of a good alternative for sharing data between applications and devices.
Android: works well on phones, but the question is: how fast can Google make this a viable tablet OS? Also, while most of the Android-stack is open source, Google isn't collaborating much with the community but mainly doing their own thing and then dumping the code. It seems to me like the project was rushed out of the door to give handset makers something to combat the iPhone – which definitely worked. But what's its long-term vision?
MeeGo: a joint open-source project by Intel and Nokia, hosted by the Linux Foundation. Designed for smartphones, netbooks, tablets and similar devices this looks really promising, as the two companies seem to work closely with the community and are using existing software packages such as Qt. But MeeGo, as opposed to the iPad, just isn't quite ready for prime time yet.
As mentioned in the beginning, Microsoft started promoting Tablet PCs in 2001 and had, with Pocket PC and its successor, Windows Mobile, a smartphone OS nearly a decade ago. Nonetheless they tanked in these areas and Microsoft officially decided to start from scratch on its mobile OS, launching Windows Phone 7 in 2010. Meanwhile, its CEO Steve Ballmer still declares that Windows 7 is the company's roadmap to the tablet. Obviously they still haven't learned that user interfaces do matter.
So let's hope that at least one of the three free software platforms I have identified for post-PC touchscreen devices is going to catch up with Apple and provide a compelling user interface and platform before it's too late and we have another Microsoft.