If all the rumours are right, Apple will next month launch a new touch screen notebook with several PC vendors set to follow suit with touch screen PC’s, monitors and notebooks. But are touch screen notebooks going to be the saviour of the PC industry?

Chris Connery, Vice President, PC and Large Format Commercial Displays, and John Jacobs, Director, Notebook Market Research at DisplaySearch have been looking at the impact that touch screens will have on the market.

They claim that in the process of consulting with companies throughout the display supply chain, we hear of internal debates about touch screens on desktop monitors, all-in-one PCs (AIOs) and notebooks, with about as many different opinions as there are people in the room.

In one recent discussion, the opinion was voiced that everyone over the age of 40 immediately dismisses the idea of a touch interface for PCs used for standard purposes-not iPhone “computing”-but sitting at your desk or on the couch, writing e-mails, doing taxes, surfing the web, shopping for shoes.

Some argue that moving one’s hands from the keyboard and the mouse to the screen is inefficient. Others note that touching the screen smudges it or makes it dirty. Smudging can be mitigated by the type of touch technology or by the addition of additional layers; however, but each adds additional cost. Others argue that touching the screen on a notebook can tip the entire computer over. Aside from these arguments, legacy issues, especially those related to how this generation of users were taught to use a computer as well as the software interface, are hampering the adoption of touch on PCs.

Touch is almost required on most portable devices (cell phones and PMPs), but most of these have interfaces that are designed for touch. In addition to designing the operating system to make touch intuitive, touch is also a good fit for hand-held devices as the only way to grow the display without increasing the size of the device by eliminating the physical keyboard.

The question of touch interfaces for consumer PCs will once again be tested with the new crop of low-priced AIOs. There have already been touch-based AIOs such as HP’s TouchSmart on the market for many years, but most of these have been high-end, feature-rich products, which many argue was what limited their penetration. The new crop of low-priced AIOs ($499-699) will include many with both touch and non-touch varieties, so retailers will struggle with which one to carry.


Some industry players have stated that they will only carry AIOs with a touch interface, but others, especially discount retailers that may not have played in the PC market before, will carry the lower-priced non-touch versions. DisplaySearch estimates that touch for a desktop size display can add as much as $100-150 to the retail price depending upon the touch solution. The cost increase is in direct proportion to the size of the display, so the BOM cost of the touch component could be $60-70 using the most common types of touch technology. Retailers carrying touch-only products indicate that touch is a sales mechanism rather than a must-have or a mouse replacement.

For the small number of touch-enabled AIOs already on the market, there are indications that the sales mix skews towards 30-59 year olds, with the ratio of acceptance favouring males by 60% to 40%. Males in this age range are the traditional gadget geeks, so might not reflect the mainstream market for AIOs, so historical data might not be the best predictor for this new category.

For touch-enabled notebook PCs, we must split the market into two segments. Slate-style (think of an electronic clipboard) tablet PCs have been in the market for many years, primarily serving the needs of a long list of vertical markets from field service workers to health care. Convertible tablet PCs, those that mostly closely resemble a traditional “clamshell-style” notebook PC have also been in the market for many years, and have had some success in education as well as the vertical markets like public safety (police and fire) and the military. They have only recently begun to be marketed to consumers, again by HP with their TouchSmart tx2. DisplaySearch estimates a BOM cost (including digitizer) of $70-80, with alternative touch solutions estimated to cost $15-30 for a typical notebook.

In 2001, Bill Gates showed prototype tablet PCs at Comdex-a year ahead of their 2002 launch-and was quoted in a company news release, “It’s a PC that is virtually without limits and within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America.” So far, Mr. Gates has missed his prediction. Currently, tablet PCs account for less than 3% of the notebook PC market. Historically, convertible tablet PCs have been priced at a substantial premium (as much as 30%) to traditional notebook PCs. Size and weight have also been issues.


The touch panel made the display thicker and heavier, and because of the physical nature of the convertible tablet PC design, a stronger and consequently heavier hinge was required to support the display while also being able to rotate and pivot on a single axis. And finally, software has hindered the growth of this market. For many years, tablet PCs required a pricier “Tablet PC Edition” OS from Microsoft and the lack of a killer app for touch-screen-enabled notebook PCs has hindered growth. While many may marvel at the touch screen technology, the next question was typically, “OK, now what can I do with it?”

With the popularity of Apple’s iPhone, the knowledge, acceptance and viability of touch screen as a user interface has never been higher. There are many more companies involved in the touch-screen supply chain than ever before. In addition to Apple, Microsoft and most major PC brands, there are a large number of third-party software developers developing applications specifically designed to capitalize on features of touch screens. What remains to be seen in the PC market is whether touch screens will make the leap from hand-held devices like mini-note (netbooks), and then to larger notebook PCs.
Mice and other pointing devices have been used for 30 years to navigate and point on the computer screen. However, the oldest pointing device is still the index finger. Touch screen-related companies are counting on people to remember this fact.

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