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Intel ignores Steve Jobs, adds touchscreen to Ultrabook

Research departments come to 180° conclusions

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CES 2012 Intel's research department has overruled Steve Jobs: touchscreens have been added to the next generation of Chipzilla's Ultrabook spec.

"Touch skipped the notebook, skipped the Ultrabook. It was dedicated to phones, it was dedicated to tablets," Mooly Eden, general manager of Intel's PC Client Group told his audience on Monday morning at the Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas. "It's not going to skip the Ultrabook any more."

In October 2010, when introducing Mac OS X Lion, Jobs said that Apple's research department had determined that touchscreens weren't appropriate for vertical displays such as are found on PCs and notebooks. "We've done tons of user testing on this, and it turns out it doesn't work," Jobs said. "Touch surfaces want to be horizontal."

Eden admitted that a lot of folks at Intel agreed with Jobs. "There was a lot of dispute about this," he said.

"We had all this discussion at Intel – and some of us have been almost religious, believing that an Ultrabook with touch would be an ultimate solution," he said, placing himself firmly in the touchscreen camp.

Eden and his pro-touchscreen compatriots don't want to replace the keyboard with a touchscreen; they want the two to cohabitate. "People do not want to give away their real keyboard, the physical keyboard," he said, "but they want to enjoy both worlds: the real keyboard and the screen."

To settle the dispute, Intel researchers tested touchscreen-enabled Ultrabooks with users in Europe and the US. "The reaction was unbelievable," Eden said. "People loved it."

What the Intel researchers discovered was that users naturally separated computing activities into ones they wanted to perform with a touchscreen – such as tapping to open files and using multi-touch gestures to manipulate images and scroll through documents and lists – and those they prefer to perform with a physical keyboard, such as entering textual information.

Eden said he was particularly taken by the response of one test subject, who said of the keyboard, "This for working," and of the touchscreen, "This is for fun."

Eden also contradicted Jobs and Apple's research, which came to the conclusion that working on a vertical touchscreen would be tiring – although many at Intel had felt the same way.

"You've got all these skepticism people – also at Intel we've got a few of them – and they say 'Yes, touchschreen is great, but make sure that you sell it to people with gorilla hands, because you need to do like this [reaching towards a screen with outstretched arms] all the time so you better go to the gym room and make sure that you've got big muscles in order to be able to operate it'."

That's not what Intel's researchers discovered. According to Eden, natural gestures such as pointing and flip-scrolling don't require the aforementioned gorilla hands. "It's much more comfortable to do the scrolling like this," he said, flipping his hand horizontally, "than doing it with a mouse."

Eden said that many at Intel didn't believe the results of this first round of user testing, "So we sent teams over to Brazil and China, and the two teams came back with exactly the same results."

Eden then hosted demos of touchscreen Ultrabooks running Windows 7 and Windows 8 – but before he did, he instructed his audience "If you believe me, say 'Wow!', and if you don't believe me, go later on to these notebooks, try it, touch it, and then tell me 'Wow!'"

From our point of view, Eden may be right – but only for Ultrabooks, where the distance between keyboard and display is minimal and the screen is tilted backward. On a desktop setup, where the screen is essentially vertical and the keyboard is a good distance from it, we're going with Jobs & Co. ®

Bootnote

Should touch-enabled Ultrabooks catch on, it'll be strike two for Jobs. Speaking in a conference call with reporters and analysts in October 2010, the late Apple cofounder ripped seven-inch tablets, saying that their displays were too small for easy use. Citing Apple's "extensive user testing on touch interfaces," he said, "There are clear limits on how close you can physically place elements on a touchscreen before users cannot reliably tap, flick, or pinch them."

Ignoring for a moment the fact that users regularly "tap, flick, or pinch" Apple's iPhone and iPod touch, the success of Amazon's popular – if flawed – Kindle Fire fired a high hard one through the strike zone of Jobs' seven-inch dismissal.

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