Published: August 23, 2008-- BREAKTHROUGHS often beget other breakthroughs, and Apple's slick use of touch technology on its iPhone has set touch-screen makers to salivating. An industry once relegated to niches now sees the potential for riches.
The market for touch screens has grown quietly for years, both in commercial applications like restaurant point-of-sale systems, credit card signature readers or automated teller machines, and in consumer devices like global positioning systems and game platforms. But touch screens havenít created much excitement as the main way for people to use things like phones or computers or other consumer electronics -- until now.
"Apple changed everybody's mind about touch," says Geoff Walker, global director of product management at Tyco Electronics' Elo TouchSystems unit, a big seller of touch screens. That iPhone users can so easily resize photos with just a pinch or a flick of their fingertips is "supercool," he says.
In particular, Apple changed minds about what is called multitouch technology. A multitouch screen is exactly what it sounds like: a screen that can accept input from multiple touches at once. If you haven't seen an iPhone in action, you might have seen CNN commentators zipping around the "Magic Wall" during election coverage; the wall uses technology developed by Perceptive Pixel, a start-up in New York.
Apple uses multitouch screens in which a slight electrical charge reacts to the human body's own electrical field, rather than pressure. There are other kinds of multitouch technology, but all are among the more expensive types of touch technology, industry observers say. High prices had caused multitouch to languish before the iPhone's introduction.
But the success of the iPhone has encouraged other companies to explore multitouch screens. It might follow that if people like using their fingers on the screen of a cellphone, they would like it even better on the bigger displays of computers. That's the hope of N-trig (pronounced "intrigue"), an eight-year-old Israeli company that makes a multitouch screen that can be used with a pen as well a finger.
The ability to work with both convinced Dell to put the N-trig screen into the Latitude XT, a hybrid computer that's smaller than a laptop but bigger than a tablet model. N-trigís ability to respond to multitouch made it possible to use a finger as a mouse and a pen to write messages.
"We don't use finger paint on our desks to write notes," says Roy Stedman, a technology strategist at Dell. Mr. Stedman envisions things like using one finger to "hold" a folder and another to flick e-mail messages into it, or adjusting the volume on a PC by "twisting" a knob instead of mousing over it.
N-trig is feeling invigorated by the iPhone. "During the latter part of 2006, I had this success with Dell, but other manufacturers said 'Touch, we don't know,' " says Amihai Ben-David, the chief executive of N-trig. Then came the January 2007 announcement of the iPhone, and those same companies started calling him.
He says the company's screens will appear next year on a notebook computer, a PC and a new type of phone. Just Wednesday, Intel showed off an N-trig screen in a concept computer it calls the UrbanMax.
Mr. Ben-David says that as costs of multitouch screens fall over the next five years, most mobile devices will shift to the screens.
But Joseph W. Deal, the president and C.E.O. of Wacom Technology, which makes touch screens and electronic input tools and recently announced its own multitouch technology, issues a caution. He has been in the industry for 15 years, long enough to have seen other touch technologies fail to make it into the mainstream. For multitouch to succeed, he said, "the cost is going to have to come down substantially."
INDUSTRY analysts also say it might take years for multitouch technology to take hold. Even in the cellphone market, it's likely that touch screens of all types will be on only 30 percent of phones by 2013, according to iSuppli, the market researcher.
Roger L. Kay, president of the technology researcher Endpoint Technologies Associates, says he thinks that perhaps 10 percent of mobile computing devices will have touch screens by then, about one-third multitouch. He says that touch as a general-purpose technology "is still in its infancy."