FEATURE: Touchscreens gaining traction on mobiles

FierceMarkets' DailyTechRag editor Mehan Jayasuriya explores the trend of touchscreens on mobile devices and beyond.

With Apple's OS X Leopard delayed from June until October, the rumor mill has been buzzing about the "top-secret" features in the OS that Steve Jobs has hinted at during his last few keynotes. One of the more tantalizing rumors out there goes a little something like this: Apple is integrating iPhone-like Multitouch capabilities into its desktop OS and will unveil new hardware, including touch-sensitive displays, alongside Leopard in October. Apple's display line is overdue for a refresh, Leopard has been rumored to have some revolutionary new features and Apple could use some big changes to the UI in OS X to help distinguish the Mac operating system from Windows Vista. Multitouch displays do seem to fit the bill-but is such a product feasible?

To find out, DailyTechRag got in touch (pun intended) with the touch-sensor experts: Synaptics. The company provides the touchpads for over 50 percent of laptops on the market and more recently, made a name for itself by designing and manufacturing the "scroll wheel" used in certain iPod models. The company has long enjoyed a close relationship with Apple and even though they won't confirm whether or not they're providing the technology in the iPhone ("I can't comment on any specific business with Apple," Synaptics VP of marketing Clark Foy told DailyTechRag), the company will admit to manufacturing the touch-screen for LG's similar Prada Phone.

The Prada Phone and the iPhone both use what is called "capacitive sensing"-technology that detects the conductive abilities of human fingers. In that sense they are truly "touch" sensors, as they require the user to touch but not press the screen. Synaptics's newest capacitive sensing technology, called ClearTouch (which is being used in the LG Prada Phone), allows for a clear capacitive touch screen to be placed over a high-quality LCD. A plastic lens is then placed over the touch screen to protect it from wear and tear. This type of technology allows manufacturers to use touch-screens effectively in small, thin mobile devices. "They're simple, accurate and highly-durable," Foy said.

But what about touch-sensitive displays? We've all seen touch-screens being used in kiosks and non-consumer displays for years now (though most of those use a different kind of technology). How about some true drag-and-drop in OS X? "I think that to make the entire display touch sensitive will be very expensive," Foy said. "You're talking about altering the whole user paradigm of having your hands down on some user input device and looking at the screen." Foy brings up a good reason why we probably won't be seeing fully touch-sensitive displays any time soon: who wants to have their hands on an LCD screen all day? "You might want to do that a few times but you don't want to sit there and do it for 25, 30 minutes at a time," he said.

So does that mean that the Multitouch display rumor is dead? "I think there will be small steps in that direction," Foy said, suggesting that "simple onscreen controls that show up on the edge of the display," might make a lot more sense. In fact, Foy confirmed that Synaptics is working on such technology, though he couldn't reveal who the company's clients are. "It's going to take a very, very big leap in the desktop UI and the placement of the LCD to make [the leap to a touch-screen display]," Foy added. "It's much easier if I can reach up on the edge of that display and swipe my finger."

That's an interesting choice of language, given that the iPhone's Multitouch famously uses finger swipes for some of its functions. And OS X seems like a good candidate for making use of a partial touch-screen display-remember that the dock is situated at the bottom or side of the screen, which would make it relatively easy to produce a display that was touch sensitive in those specific areas. Other controls that traditionally appear as physical buttons-especially those that control display parameters like brightness-also seem like prime candidates for making the move to a portion of the screen. Could Leopard's "top-secret" feature be a touch-sensitive dock? We'll all have to wait until October to find out. -Mehan