Apple Inc. engineers may have invented the perfect mousetrap.
The company made the computer mouse popular in 1984 with the release of the Macintosh. But its much-anticipated iPhone lets a finger that is whisked across a touch screen perform many of the same functions -- and new ones.
iPod and a hand-held Internet device.
Showing it off at the Macworld conference in San Francisco last month, Jobs pinched his fingers together on the screen to shrink a photo, then spread them to expand it. He rolled his finger, and album covers shuffled past as if he were flipping through the vinyl at a record store. When he held the iPhone up to his face, the screen sensed him and went to sleep.
"When I don't need my keyboard, it's not there," he said. "When I do, it's there."
The iPhone, which features a sleek screen that measures 3 1/2 inches by about 2 1/2 inches, marked a major advance in the commercialization of potent computers that use fingers on a screen to navigate.
Rudimentary touch screens have become commonplace, helping bank customers withdraw money from ATMs and travelers check in at airport kiosks. Researchers credit these machines for getting the public used to touching computer monitors, even as they dismiss them as "poking computer interfaces."
In smart phones and other hand-held devices with small on-screen keypads, the plastic stylus became the pointer of choice. Apple spokeswoman Natalie Kerris dismissed the penlike pointer as "inconvenient" and "easy to lose."
"It's more natural to use the pointing device we were all born with -- your finger," she said.
But for many years, researchers couldn't master the finger. Their efforts to create sophisticated touch-screen computers were beset with technical challenges, high costs and doubts over whether consumers, trained to treat the mouse and keyboard as extensions of their hands, would adopt touch screens.
Not to mention the smudge factor from dirty digits.
But the growing popularity of smart phones, cost reductions and technological breakthroughs -- such as screens that don't show the sensing mechanism underneath -- have spurred a potential boom in the touch-screen computer market. Researchers call these devices multi-touch, because the screens can process commands from several fingers at once.
"We're at the appetizer stage of the multi-touch meal," said John Feland, human interface architect at Synaptics Inc., a Santa Clara, Calif., interface designer that demonstrated its own multi-touch phone, the Onyx, in August.
When Apple's iPhone goes on sale in June starting at $499, it may bring touch-screen devices into the mainstream and pave the way for competitors.
"The mouse caught on because people like to point," said Fred Callopy, professor of information systems and cognitive science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "The new touch screens take a step in the direction of natural movement."
Prada, the Italian fashion house, recently announced a multi-touch device. The Prada Phone, developed by South Korea's LG Electronics with help from Synaptics, goes on sale in Europe this month for $775.
Microsoft Corp. has developed a technology called TouchLight, which has been compared to the way Tom Cruise's character pushes images across a screen in the 2002 science fiction film "Minority Report." EON Reality Inc., an Irvine interactive software company, licensed TouchLight with the intention of creating virtual 3-D modeling products for such industries as aerospace and auto manufacturing.
Hewlett-Packard Co. last week began selling its $1,799 TouchSmart PC, designed for use in the kitchen, living room and other family spaces. It includes a hideaway keyboard. But its touch screen enables users to perform tasks such as moving pictures and writing notes without having to sit at a desk, because that "feels like work," said Julie McDonald, an industrial design product marketing manager at HP.
Touch screens have some drawbacks.
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Apple's iPhone may point the way as touch screens replace the keyboard and mouse.
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