Editorial: Google's multitouch dilemma

As anyone who's seen the last Engadget Show knows, we were incredibly lucky to have Google's Erick Tseng as our guest. Erick is product manager of Android at Google, and he's one of the sharpest, brightest, funniest guys around -- it was great having him on the show, and I sincerely hope we see a lot more of him as time goes by. It's obvious that Android is in capable hands.

Of course, the problem with having someone as funny, sharp, and bright as Erick on the show is that they tend to come in extremely well-prepared, and Erick was no exception -- he'd read the many comments where you all asked for solid answers regarding the state of multitouch gestures on Android, and he had his answers ready and polished to a high shine. Like we've been hearing for months now, Erick told us that Android now supports the recognition of multiple touch inputs -- the basic definition of "multitouch" -- and that the real issue is actually how multitouch is implemented. It was a fascinating exchange that I encourage you to watch, but here's the main quote:

When people say 'why doesn't Android have multitouch?' it's not a question of 'multitouch'... I want to reframe the question. We have multitouch -- what people are asking for is specific implementations in the UI that use multitouch, like pinch-to-zoom, or chording on the keyboard.

That's a solid, respectable answer, and it was delivered with confidence, poise, and charm. There's just one problem: it's not actually an answer, because the semantics don't matter. No matter how you look at it, the lack of "specific multitouch implementations" is still a huge issue with Android -- one that's become a growing distraction.

In fact, all this talk about Android and multitouch just reminds me of the endless bickering about the iPhone and copy-and-paste before iPhone OS 3.0 came out: it didn't matter that the App Store was redefining mobile software sales or that the iPhone was turning into something much more than just a phone, because it lacked a single feature that everyone wanted. Every conversation about the iPhone involved at least some bitching about copy-and-paste with a side order of moaning about MMS, and it still hasn't completely subsided. And now the exact same thing is happening with Android and multitouch, or "specific multitouch implementations," or whatever Google wants to call it. Pinchy-pinch. Squeezy-weezy. SuperTouch 3000. Guess what? It's not in the platform by default, and everyone is constantly talking about it.

Actually, in some ways it's even worse than the copy-and-paste situation, because the things we've heard Google say about multitouch so far raise some troublesome questions. For example, when we asked Erick why the European Motorola Milestone has pinch-to-zoom in the browser but the Droid doesn't, he told us that "the software isn't in Google's control" when it leaves the US. So... does that mean Google exerts control over Android in the US? How much control? Did it actively forbid Motorola from using pinch-to-zoom in the Droid's browser? Why didn't Google use Motorola's pinch-to-zoom code in the Droid, but use HTC's code in the Droid Eris? And then not use it in the Nexus One? If Google doesn't have any control over the Milestone, why does it allow Motorola to load Google apps like Gmail on it? Until someone can answer these questions in a reasonable way, they're going to keep coming up over and over again.

Of course, there's always a chance that Google and Apple really do have some backroom deal that prevents Android from having native pinch-to-zoom in the US -- Erick refused to explicitly deny such a deal when Josh asked him about "conspiracy theories" on the show. But that's a hard pill to swallow. First, it puts Google at a huge competitive disadvantage from the get-go, which is a terrible business strategy for a company that's pretty damn good at running its business. Second, Google prides itself on transparency and openness, and a secret deal forbidding Android from having pinch-to-zoom flies in the face of that culture. You say it's a patent issue? Nothing's changed since the last time I walked that lonely road: I still have yet to see an Apple patent that covers the pinch-to-zoom gesture, and Palm, Microsoft, and a laundry list of other companies are all now using the move without consequence. Besides, it's freaking Google -- the same company that up and decided copyright law was broken and started scanning out of print books because it wanted to try something new. Even if there is some mythical Apple patent on pinch-to-zoom, Google is one of the few companies that has the financial and legal resources to get it invalidated -- and there's plenty of prior art out there that'll help it along the way.

Look, this is simple. We love Android, and we want it to succeed. But we can't move on to other, more important conversations -- just where is that full Unicode support? -- until the distraction of the multitouch issue goes away. That doesn't mean Google has to code pinchy-pinch into Android 2.2, and it doesn't mean it has to retool the UI. It just needs to tell its customers what's really going on.