The Touchscreen Paradigm

Programming is evolving faster than ever. In recent years, mobile platforms have broken the software market wide open, and most implications of this disruption are yet to be discovered. However, some effects are already obvious. Software has transcended the limitations of mouse/keyboard/gamepad input, since mobile devices integrate touchscreens with cameras, microphones, speakers, and wireless connections. I call this “the touchscreen paradigm” but it refers to all of those now-standard inputs and outputs.

This hardware generalizes to an unprecedented number of applications. A typing keyboard can be simulated by key images on the touchscreen, although that experience has decidedly inferior ergonomics. Mouse clicks are replaced by touchscreen taps, and while this system has no provision for “hover” interactions, other forms of mouse control are improved. Drawing is very awkward with a mouse, since the brain has to map the mousepad surface to the display in real-time. Touchscreens eliminate this problem, and in fact they are functionally similar to high-end drawing tablets with integrated screens that have been available for some time. Wacom, a manufacturer of these computer accessories, now sells a high-end stylus that integrates with mobile software.

Other applications go beyond anything that is possible with a mouse and keyboard. Multiple finger touches can be processed at once, making “Minority Report” interfaces easy to build in software. Microsoft put significant capital into a tabletop touchscreen computer called the Surface Table (re-branded as the PixelSense). However, similar interfaces can be added to mobile devices with software, such as this Photo Table application. Fortunately for independent developers, the barriers to entry in mobile software are very low because standard hardware already exists.

These examples barely begin to fill the space of possible touchscreen applications. My phone is already a feature-rich camera, an “FM” radio, a guitar tuner, an SSH client, and a flashlight. Those products have been manufactured before with dedicated hardware, but mobile software is also being used to invent completely new technology. Products which require a touchscreen, audio/video input/output, or an internet connection can be built entirely in software and sold as mobile applications.

As a software engineer, this is obviously a good thing. However, the sheer number of new applications that are possible on mobile platforms presents an intimidating problem: what to build next? Customers might be able to describe what they’d pay for, but they don’t always know what they’ll want to buy in the future. The first generation of application programmers probably experienced a similar feeling. It’s inspiring and terrifying at the same time.

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