Gorilla Arm? No, thank you!

Touch is everywhere today and I don’t mean you touching other people. No, what I’m talking about is of course touch interfaces for computers, smartphones, tablets and other gadgets.

Although Apple didn’t invent touchscreens, it popularised the technology beyond what any other company has done before the iPhone’s introduction in 2007 and since. I’d argue that Apple is the only company that can rival, well, Apple, with its introduction last year of the iPad.

Touch works well on a surface like a smartphone or tablet where the device is most often used in a flat orientation or near to it. I mean, how often do you use your iPhone or iPad in a vertical position? I’d venture a guess that the answer is not very often. Perhaps only when you take photos or video you hold it straight up. In fact, for these devices it’s a rather awkward position.

So will touch make it to other devices in Apple’s range and possibly even Macs? Let’s not forget that touch is already an important part of most Macs today. All portable Macs have multitouch-enabled trackpads and Mac OS X 10.7 promises to bring even more touch to Macs.

But don’t hold your breath about touch coming to vertical Mac displays. After claiming that Apple has done “tons of user testing” on vertical touchscreens, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said last year that “it turns out it doesn’t work. Touch surfaces don’t want to be vertical. It gives great demo, but after a short period of time you start to fatigue, and after an extended period of time, your arm wants to fall off.”

Apparently our human arms are not built to be stretched out for prolonged periods of time in the manner necessary to operate a vertical touch display like that on a Mac. This phenomena even has a name, “Gorilla arm.” According to Wikipedia, Gorilla arm happens because “human arm held in an unsupported horizontal position rapidly becomes fatigued and painful.”

Of course, we use vertical touch displays on an almost daily basis, or at least near-vertical ones, like ATMs. We typically use them for very short period of times though, like seconds or a few minutes. A Mac you often use for hours on end, which I think we all realise would not be suitable for holding your arm straight out. So, I predict that we’ll see Apple continue to use touch on horizontal surfaces like trackpads and perhaps there’ll be a “one more thing” in an upcoming Apple keynote.

That said, it would be wise not to totally count Apple out because it often seems like when the company refutes something it ends up introducing products doing just that, but with a twist. Remember how Cupertino made fun of notebooks for years and said it wasn’t interested in that form factor? Voila, the 11-inch MacBook Air appears.


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