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In touch with the digital age

  • Story Highlights
  • Humble computer mouse comes under threat from touch-screen technology
  • Microsoft chief executive, Steve Ballmer unveiled "Surface" in May 2007
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By Matthew Knight for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- It has been an indispensable fixture of computing for as long as most people can remember. But sentences beginning with the words "click on" and "click and drag" may not be part of future office parlance as the humble computer mouse comes under threat from new touch-screen technology which is being rolled out by the major players in the computer industry. It promises to be the biggest change to personal computing in a quarter of a century.


Microsoft's new "Surface" computer - demonstrating how it might be used to plan a trip from a hotel lobby.

Although touch-screen has long permeated the more mundane aspects of modern life such as ticket machines and tills, and provided interactive novelties in the guise of museum guides and quiz machines, applying this technology to the PC is a far more complex task.

The mouse is a tough act to follow. First conceived by Dr Douglas Engelbart and aided by Bill English -- who would later design the first "ball mouse" -- at the Stanford Research Institute in 1965, the mouse was first used commercially by Xerox in their "Star Workstation" computer made in 1981.

Apple was granted a license to use the mouse on its "Lisa" model shortly after, but it was only when it was incorporated into the iconic Apple Macintosh in 1984 that the mouse gradually took off commercially.

Spool forward 23 years and its difficult to imagine computer life without the mouse guiding the majority of computer functions, but that's exactly what's on offer in 2007 -- a landmark year in personal computing.

At the beginning of the year Hewlett-Packard (HP) launched a range of PCs with touch-sensitive screens. It marked a return to territory they had mined before, when HP were the first company to attempted to introduce touch-screens to the commercial market in 1983 with the HP150.

The modern version - the TouchSmart PC -- looks set to be far more popular and is designed with all the family in mind. It is a one-stop multimedia center, which it is hoped, will become the hub for a family's work and entertainment requirements.

Based around Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system the TouchSmart PC doesn't dispense with a mouse and keyboard totally -- these are readily available when required -- but rather it takes the emphasis off them as tools of necessity for all tasks. HP have incorporated a host of one touch entertainment options -- including a SmartCalendar and PhotoSmart Touch -- which makes managing a diary, movies, photos and music much easier.

In May this year at the Wall Street Journal's D: All Things Digital conference in California Microsoft chief executive, Steve Ballmer unveiled "Surface".

With a multi-touch display - no keyboard or mouse here -- housed in what looks in size and shape like a chic coffee table, the company hope that the table-style computer will change the face of computing at the office and in the home over the next decade.

Tom Gibbons Corporate Vice President of Microsoft's recently formed Productivity and Extended Consumer Experiences Group says "Surface computing is a completely intuitive and liberating way to interact with digital content. It blurs the lines between the physical and virtual world. By using your hands or placing other unique everyday objects on the surface you can interact with, share and collaborate like you've never done before."

On first inspection "Surface" recalls the classic table-top arcade stations often found in bars and clubs. Measuring 22 inches high, 21 inches deep and 42 inches wide, the computer boasts a 30-inch display which Microsoft claim is capable of "recognizing dozens and dozens of touches simultaneously, including fingers, hands, gestures and objects placed on the table, allowing users to share, explore and create experiences together." It is also able to interact with mobile phones, digital cameras and music players.

With a retail price of $5000-10,000 Microsoft have already confirmed orders from hotels, restaurants and casinos and they hope that as "Surface" becomes more popular the price will fall far enough for the consumer market.

The market in portable touch-screen devices has been dominated by news -- good and bad -- about Apple's new iPhone. Whilst Apple have added another sumptuous design to their immaculate portfolio, the iPhone has been the subject of personal security fears as researchers at Independent Security Evaluators (ISE) based in Baltimore, successfully hacked an iPhone remotely - although a straightforward software patch looks likely to solve this problem.

Touch-screen looks set to complement existing hardware, rather than banish them to the history books, enabling more collaboration and simplifying the process of accessing multi-media facilities on the PC.

Far from becoming extinct it's likely that the mouse will maintain its crucial role. Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, Bill Buxton believes the mouse is just too valuable to dispense with. "The mouse is great for many things. Just not everything. The challenge with new input is to find devices that work together, simultaneously with the mouse, or things that are strong where the mouse is weak, thereby complimenting it." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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