Editorial: A less tactile future, and how to avoid it

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Editorial: A less tactile future, and how to avoid it
For the past few weeks, I've been doing most of my typing on a Matias Tactile Pro 3 -- a mechanical keyboard that's much like the original Apple Extended or IBM Model M keyboards, in function, if not appearance. If you're not old enough to remember those, that means it relies on mechanical key switches instead of the rubber membrane used by most keyboards these days. You feel, and hear every key press -- and, after you've used one for a while, you'll be much more aware of the mushy alternative hiding under other keyboards, and likely find them quite unsatisfying.

Mechanical keyboards have seen a slight resurgence as of late among gamers, who value their accuracy, but they mostly remain a niche product for folks like me -- writers who might also happen to collect manual typewriters, or coders who honed their skills to their familiar clickety-clack sound in the 80s and 90s. I bring this up because it's not just keyboards that have gotten less "tactile" in recent years, but computing and consumer electronics in general -- and that includes cellphones.

Most reading this have probably owned a flip phone or two at some point in their cellphone-toting years. Now, I'm not exactly that nostalgic for the days of the Motorola RAZR, but it is certainly more satisfying to end a call by snapping a phone shut than by tapping on a touchscreen, isn't it? For better or worse, phones are now getting even less tactile still, with that last bit of mechanical-ness -- buttons -- being shoved out in favor of flush, capacitive replacements, some of which attempt to make themselves felt with a lackluster bit of haptic feedback.

Of course, "tactile" doesn't just mean keyboards and buttons. Phones, computers, and consumer electronics in general have also by and large been shifting into two different camps in terms of design: the metal and glass approach exemplified by Apple, and the glossy plastic approach favored by the likes of Samsung. Those are two very different schools of thought, but they do both arguably focus on the visual at the expensive of the tactile. This is one area that I think RIM has actually been setting an example worth following.

It became a leader in the business world not just because of push messaging and secure software (although that obviously helped), but also because its products felt like they were meant for some serious work. Heck, the back of a BlackBerry Bold practically feels like an extension of your wallet.

RIM is at least still saying the right things at the moment -- Jim Balsillie claims the Playbook was modeled in part on that most grabbable of objects, the Moleskine notebook -- but that's unfortunately becoming less evident in the products themselves. It didn't exactly succeed in making a touchscreen tactile with the original Storm (something Sony is now also exploring), and it somehow managed to botch something as simple as a power button on the PlayBook -- it offers a long swipe gesture as an alternative, but that's both less intuitive and, yes, less tactile.

Another company that's gotten some things right recently is Lenovo, which released its mold-breaking IdeaPad U260 late last year. It looks like a leather-bound journal and feels like one, with an exterior that's soft to the touch and easy to grip, and a faux leather palm rest that surrounds a polished glass touchpad. Sure, it also has its faults, but imagine what an even more refined version would be like -- maybe even with a keyboard that felt as good as the rest of the laptop.

Unfortunately, the U260 remains an exception to the rule, both for Lenovo and the industry as a whole. Even cameras -- an area where companies like Nikon and Leica have long been setting examples worth following -- are now increasingly treading into less tactile territory.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that all of the progress away from buttons and tactility has been bad. Phones and other devices have gotten sleeker and smaller as a result, and many unquestionably look fantastic. Aesthetics are important. Change is good. What I'm suggesting is that we might be able to learn from what's worked so well in the past, and expand on what's become so natural, rather than simply ignore it. In fact, I'd argue that tactility is now more important than ever as products continue to get thinner and lighter.

I may be in the minority on some of this -- and, indeed, a less tactile future does seem to be where we're headed -- but there are some folks exploring how these ideas might take shape in new ways. PhD student Fabian Hemmert has been trying to answer the question of how to make digital content more "graspable" for the past few years and has come up with a range of possible answers, including a phone that can shift its center of gravity to lead you in one direction or another (without you having to look at it). And designer Guust Hilte has taken a similar no-look approach with his tactile texting device, which could just as easily be incorporated into the back of a cellphone to let you text or perform a range of tasks without requiring your full attention.

Those, of course, are just two small examples that may not ever move far beyond the lab, but they show that the possibilities for a more tactile future are virtually endless. And while they may both be somewhat ambitious approaches, there are also some more modest solutions that could be implemented by manufacturers in the shorter term.

One possible small-scale option, for instance, could be a sort of premium "trim level" for laptops and phones much like automakers offer on cars. Instead of heated seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, tech manufacturers could offer a laptops with a stylish, easy-to-grip lid or textured accents (perhaps even a higher-end keyboard), or smartphones with a more graspable, less fingerprint-prone enclosure that's as handsome as it is practical. Manufacturers that don't feel up to such an endeavor themselves could even get more tactile-minded companies like J. Crew or Roots to help out, and expand their retail base in the process.

In the case of phones and tablets, an even easier answer could be as simple as a well-designed case that does more than just protect your device. Apple has shown some real innovation in that respect with its Smart Cover for the iPad 2, and I think the response to it shows that people are eager for technology they're truly able to wrap their hands around. Who knows, maybe the next iPhone will have a Smart Cover of its own that you'll be able to flip shut to end a call -- just like that RAZR.
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