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Tabletop Touchscreens: The Next Desktop Publishing Revolution?

Will big touchscreen displays—bigger than tablets—usher in new kinds of creative composition?

I don’t hear much talk about Microsoft’s Surface computers, those industrial strength touchscreens-on-a-tabletop. But maybe the idea was about $10,000 too expensive and a few years ahead of its time. Hear me out while I play connect-the-anecdata-points and argue that 10-inch tablets are just the start of the touchscreen publishing revolution. I’ll bet that large, touchscreen canvases are coming, and I think they’re going to change the kinds of documents we create.

But first a quick bit on why on earth we need larger compositional spaces. After all, any decent novelist, blogger, or journalist can get by with a 11-inch laptop, right? Sure, but what about creative types who like scattering notes, sketches, and outlines across their physical desktops? And what if they want to mix and match different kinds of media and incorporate touchscreen gestures? Some tools (Objective-C, HTML5) exist, but how many creative minds have the skills necessary to use that stuff?

Last week in my digital publishing tools webcast I previewed a handful of apps and online software that let people create “media mashups”: compositions that break free from the rigidly sequenced vertical layouts that many writing tools impose. Take for example Microsoft Word or pretty much any blogging tool: only with some serious effort can you break free from producing a stacked sequence of editorial elements:

<some text>

<an image>

<a header>

<some text>

etc.

Rigid layout structures like that are, of course, great for mainly-prose narrative. But they make rich page layout—think: the interior design you see in a magazine, infographics, and their touchscreen successors—tough.

I hope you all take some time to play around with the software I mentioned (Webdoc, Blurb Mobile, Polyvore’s editor, Storify, Hype, and Mixel). Only by practicing with these rich media canvases will we begin to see the kinds of stories and messages that might emerge if we move away from the constraints of tools that segregate word from image.

But what I didn’t mention in my webcast, and the heart of this post, is a hardware development that feels increasingly likely: the arrival of large touchscreens that will make composition even easier than it currently is on devices like the iPad. Consider how the spread of really big touchscreens could improve the kinds of personal publishing projects we all work on…from family photo books to website design, and from slideshow presentations to scrapbooking. If we could combine the touchscreen’s signature talent (allowing us to signal our layout wishes directly: put this picture over there) with the large displays and workspaces that many of us enjoy at our work desks, wouldn’t that change the kinds of documents we create? And wouldn’t that require authoring tools that make it easy for us to mix and match different media types?

So here’s my list of recently spotted data points and observations:

The slow but steady convergence of Mac OS X and iOS

Anyone who follows Apple closely knows the deal here. Some headline developments for those who aren’t Mac geeks: Lion’s elevation of iOS-style, touch-friendly app icons; the increasingly high profile of touch gestures on all Mac laptops and, for the desktops, the availability of the Magic Trackpad. Steve Jobs rightfully dismissed the notion that we’d ever reach out and touch vertical displays. But it only takes a quick stroll down memory lane, and a glimpse at the sunflower-inspired iMac, to imagine a screen design that could easily shift between vertical (for long-form writing and reading) and horizontal-ish for touchscreen activities like page layout.

The heart of Windows 8: the touchscreen-friendly Metro

Microsoft’s next big operating system update is built around the premise that people will want to switch between keyboard/mouse-controlled computers and those operated via touchscreen. They’re counting on manufacturers to build tablets that do both. In one of their Metro demos, presenter Jensen Harris (a senior executive on the Windows user experience team) makes the case that in a few years it’ll be rare to find any display—tablet, laptop, or desktop—that isn’t touchscreen capable.

Touchscreen software for the big display

The New York Times Nick Bilton wrote recently about a sneak peak Adobe gave him of a 50-inch “drafting table running Photoshop Touch where you can essentially draw and create on a screen”. As Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch told him: “The creative process has been tied to a keyboard and mouse until now, and we want people to be able to touch the screen to create, just like we all used to use pencils and X-acto knives in the past.”

Decreasing prices

We all know how this works: new technology gets cheaper as it matures. Those first generation Kindles sold for $399; now they start at $79. It’s not hard to imagine a time when not only 20-plus inch desktop monitors (the swivel variety, as I described above) are affordable, but also imagine portable touchscreen displays everywhere from your office walls to your refrigerator.

Growing familiarity with touchscreen gestures

Beyond early adopters, you see it everywhere: toddlers, deliverymen, senior citizens, checkout clerks—all of ’em understand how to tap, pinch, swipe. As a culture, we’re becoming touchscreen literate.

The way I work

This one’s personal, but I wonder how unique I am. My writing method often involves a bunch of writing surfaces: draft notes that I crank out on my desktop display; a sheet of physical notebook paper where I take notes on what I’ve written; another piece of paper on which I construct an annotated outline. I don’t quite know what it is, but I just need to see it all spread out. And, man, do I love—do I need—to be able to draw lines, curves, circles, and arrows, connecting this idea over here, to that idea over there.

Writing for me on a laptop display feels claustrophobic. (I’m talking about the idea-generating and the drafting phase here; when it’s time to revise, I’m plenty happy blocking out all distractions and focusing on a single, limited size writing viewport.) LiquidText is one company I’m following closely; they’re developing touchscreen-friendly reading tools that let so-called active readers tap, touch, highlight, and move text in ways that resemble my compositional tactics. They call it “multitouch document manipulation” and it’s just one reason I’m incredibly excited about what may turn out to be the next desktop publishing revolution.