A touchable interface

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A year ago, the weekend after Where 2.0, we headed up to San Francisco to hang out with friends, to check out WonderCon, and for me to wait in line for the awesomeness that was the original iPad launch at the flagship Apple store. After getting up early and wandering a few blocks I stood in line with my fellow geeks to spend the $500 bucks on the shiny box, I went back to the hotel and synced the shiny new toy with my laptop. I didn’t spend a lot of time with it that first day since I was in San Francisco and there were things to do and places to go, but right away I had the sense that the new toy was in fact magical and revolutionary as advertised. The next day on the flight home I jumped in and got an idea of what the apps that had already been updated could do, along with doubling up some iPhone apps. It was exactly what I wanted, a really big iPhone. I had started with an iPod Touch and had decided I would need to have the connectivity of the iPhone. Once I had the iPhone I decided that while it was a go anywhere device I wanted a bigger screen for many uses.

Some of the main apps that i wanted on a big screen were the geo apps, not the LBS apps, but the maps that were interactive and touch enabled, but not based on my current position. The video, book, mail, and text editing apps didn’t hurt either, but this is a geo blog so the geo apps are where it is at. Since my first impressions which were primarily based on the built in Maps app, I have added a number of geo apps including the iPad versions of Google Earth, ArcGIS, Place History, GIS Roam, EarthObserver, iGIS, BAO, AutoCAD WS, and others. Most of these are not daily use apps, but many of my daily apps have maps embedded. Each of these apps have correlates on the desktop/laptop OSes, but it just isn’t the same. It is the ability to touch, pinch, to slide, to spin that makes these apps so great on the iPad (and iOS in general). Some of these apps have made their way to the Android tablets as well, but not to the same extent as on iOS. Even the touch friendly Windows 7 has a seriously limited number of touch applications, geo or not.

So what does this mean a year after the original iPad’s launch? To me it means that developers are slow to move into a fractured market (like Android and Windows) where the number of devices means the need to write an app that has to work at different resolutions, on various processors, and with various touch capabilities. How is this going to impact the growth of the mobile GIS apps…I don’t know! I think we are going to continue to see more focus on the smaller form factor phones as opposed to the 7″ or 10″ tablets. This will leave the larger form factors to the big pocket companies or to those apps that are device specific.

I am going to jump back to the Windows 7 options. We have to get companies to begin to work on their touch UIs. Google Earth is great on Android and iOS, but if you have a touch capable Win7 tablet, laptop, or the ever more common All-in-one top desktops you can get a little frustrated when you want to pinch to zoom or rotate your globe. As the proprietary and customized software options move more toward the user it is important to begin to incorporate the direction that home computing is inevitably heading. Surprisingly it may be easiest for those working in the web map space to add touch. Both Silverlight and Flex have touch APIs out there that could provide touch users with browser based map capabilities. While it isn’t a slam-dunk, it does offer the most direct opportunity for getting touch into users hands most quickly.

The upshot of this rant? I have used Palm and Windows CE PDA’s, XP based tablets, and all versions of the iOS and the newer versions of Android…and let’s not forget Win7…and all of them have excited me in terms of both potential and actual use. I can’t wait to see what we can build from here.

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Jesse is Instructor in Geography and a PhD candidate in Geography focusing on the integration of phenomenology and geospatial technologies to study prehistoric cultural landscape. He is a GIS Professional and Registered Professional Archaeologist and holds an MA in Geography and a BS in Anthropology with a concentration in archaeology.