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Is the Future Desktop a 40'' Tablet?

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There isn't a day that passes without an article talking about the demise of PC and desktop computing in favour of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.

While it's pretty obvious this is happening for 'casual' computing like browsing the web, shopping, sending emails or update social status, is this also true for power users such as business users and office workers that still heavily relies on their desktop to do their day to day job?

Using deductive reasoning and a little bit of intuition, I'm going to attempt to demonstrate that the future desktop could actually be a 40'' tablet on legs (or tableg).

Deductive reasoning

The next version of Windows operating system (Windows 8) will introduce a new touch-based interface called 'Metro UI' alongside the well-known windows based system we're all familiar with.

Metro UI is effectively the answer to Apple iOS and how Microsoft intends to penetrate the tablet market, following on the success of the metro style initially introduced on Windows Phone 7 and more recently on the Xbox.

Microsoft could have decided to keep the Metro UI for touch-based (or gesture-based) devices only. Instead they decided to also introduce it as part of the main desktop experience, and actually made it the default landing interface (that's where you land when you boot up). One can argue that Windows 8 is effectively a transitioning version and we could see the desktop UI disappear altogether in a future version of Windows.

Now obviously Metro UI doesn't necessarily mean touches only. It still works very well with a mouse (well make sure it's got the wheel otherwise it gets pretty tiring very quickly having to use the horizontal scrollbar all the time) but there's no two ways about it: Metro UI is optimised for touch interaction first, mouse second.

So if Microsoft is effectively saying: "The future of Human Machine Interface (HMI) is Natural User Interface (NUI) through touch, speech and gestures" then are traditional desktop hardware fit for purpose?

The answer is NO. Why? The desktop screen stands too far from the user and is too vertical. My home desktop is an all-in-one touchscreen computer which I've had it since 2008. I probably use the touchscreen 10-20% of the time and the main reason I don't use it more is 'arm-fatigue'. I like using the touchscreen a lot but with your arms effectively hanging in the air you very quickly find yourself reaching back for the mouse to rest your arm.

So if traditional desktop hardware is not right for touch interaction, are tablets the answer?

The answer is almost. While tablets are optimised for touches and provide a greater and more natural experience, the problem is size. Most power users need more than 10'' screen 'real-estate' whether to help compare objects side-by-side or multitask.

So if traditional desktop and current tablet hardware aren't ergonomically fit for purpose for the majority of power-users then it is fair to say that the future desktop hardware doesn't actually exist yet. But then what could it look like?

Out-of-the-box thinking: "The Tableg"

Thinking outside the box how about ditching your desk, replace it with the highly successful tablet concept, increase its size to 40 or 50 inches and add legs under it. Tada you're now sitting in front of a tableg.

Tableg concept by Wunderman Design

"Tableg" concept by Wunderman Design

You're probably thinking: "That's crazy and stupid" (I did warn this is out-of-the-box thinking) but take a pause and think about it. The big guys are designing software to interact with touches and I demonstrated above that the current desktop hardware doesn't provide suitable touch ergonomic for office worker. Furthermore wouldn't it be a fantastic and a more natural experience. At the end of the day using touches is so much more rewarding than using a mouse. Take one simple example with the built-in Photo app on the iPad. When you pinch, zoom and hold on an album you'll see a beautiful experience where the album opens up slightly to reveal the pictures it contains inside. Pinch it back and the pictures go back in the album. This is something you can't do with a mouse. Using a mouse is a bit like using a claw crane at the fairground to grab a teddy bear instead of grabbing the teddy bear directly with your hand. But fear not, since this is a large touchscreen, it would be perfectly possible for the user to create a virtual 'trackpad' zone and use it in the same way you do with laptops.

Could this be the next Apple iDevice?

I've always wondered why Apple never launched a touchscreen version of the iMac, especially at the back of the hugely successful and popular iPhone and iPad. I've come to believe that Apple doesn't think that the experience through traditional desktop hardware would be good enough because of the ergonomic issue highlighted above. This would explain why they still introduced multi-touch gesture but through the trackpad instead of directly through the screen.

So could Apple launch an iDesk? Of course they could and here's why they might:

  • It would create the 'surprise effect' and a new product category Apple is so renown for
  • Apple isn't afraid to invent new revolutionary hardware that enhances the software experience. The mouse, the touch-wheel of the first iPod, and obviously the touchscreens of iPhone and iPad are all perfect examples.
  • The rumours of Apple contracting Sharp have led the blogosphere to logically speculate that Apple is building an interactive TV. But what if they were building an iDesk instead (or as well). Now that would be quite spectacular!

Interestingly though Microsoft is probably the closest one to bring such a device on the market. Not only with the launch of Windows 8 but also through their work on touch-screen hardware over the last few years with Surface. And the latest generation of Surface demonstrates that this might not be such a wacky idea.

There would obviously be some challenges in replacing existing traditional office hardware with such devices but again according to Microsoft vision, that's how we're going to work in 7 years from now.

The real question is: Would you buy it (or try to persuade your boss to)?

I certainly would.

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