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N-trig President: In Two Years People Will Be 'Irritated' By Computers Without Touchscreens

Since Dell released the Latitude XT tablet, the first notebook with capacitive touch, we've been skeptical.

Sure, it works wonders on the iPhone and (we hope) the Palm Pre. But on notebooks? So far there aren't many apps available that can harness capacitive-- let alone, multi-touch-- technology, and in our hands-on testing, the displays haven't always been responsive.

Rick Seger, President of N-trig, the company behind both the XT and the HP TouchSmart tx2z's multi-touch displays, says that's about to change.

With the launch of Windows 7 just around the corner, he says app developers are waiting in the wings to unleash myriad programs, and that OEMs, despite the economy, are on board, too. As for consumers?

He predicts that within two years they'll be "irritated" if they encounter a notebook that doesn't have touch.

Q: What is N-trig’s ultimate goal for 2009 heading into 2010 and how do you plan on getting there?
A: To build out the ecosystem. The ecosystem in the PC industry has so much to gain from touch. And we have just started to scratch the surface. And yet all of the pieces have to be there. You won’t see, for instance, one OEM step forward and take the lead. You won’t see Microsoft take the bull by the horns and put all of the pieces in place. The good news is the OEMs are ready, Microsoft is ready, the ISVs are all ready. And we’ve got the unique opportunity as the leader in the touch industry to be able to put the tools in everybody’s hands, to put more or less the vision for the user experience into their heads, and then make the rest of it happen. And we’re at the point where we’re the catalyst pulling all that off.

Q: How big do you see touch getting?
A: You’ll see in the next one to two years a dramatic increase in the use of touch, to the point where two years from now people will be walking into the store, they’ll actually be irritated when they touch a screen and nothing happens. Mobile users will be the first. But I think it will spread across all market segments.

Q: “Irritated” is a pretty strong word.
A: They’re going to be frustrated. There’s almost a religious following for some of the initial tablet PC products that came out with our technologies in them. People start to utilize the pen and the touch and then become dependent on it. You’ll find that you put the multi-touch and the pen together and when people start using it you can never take it away from them. Not to mention, it’s fun. It’s a user experience where there’s all kinds of opportunities to surpass the user expectations.

Q: What are some of the applications you imagine for touch?
A: Walking up to the screen and fire flying from your fingertips or sparks shooting out of your fingers. All the way up to students. Whether it’s marking up their papers, whether it’s taking notes, whether it’s the ability to draw and communicate ideas, it’s something that a traditional keyboard by itself or a mouse just can’t deliver. The mobile professionals are going to see a level of productivity and efficiency that they can’t get with the mouse.

To some of the naysayers out there, I remember very well when the mouse came out and all of my engineering friends told me they would never remove their hands from a keyboard. Obviously, they all moved away from it. This is the same thing. The screen is a mechanism for sharing, it’s a mechanism for collaboration, it’s a mechanism for manipulation. Faster, simpler, more natural and intuitive. And people will utilize it, especially when they start at a young age, or when they’re forced into a mobile environment.

Q: Where does the pen fit into N-trig’s technology roadmap?
A: Very often the users haven’t recognized all the times they may want to use a pen. If you buy a laptop and you want to use a pen with it to sign documents, you’re a real estate agent or you’re a student and you want to draw the radius of a circle, or you do occasional design or want to write a note on a photograph, maybe scrapbooking, there’s dozens of uses for the pen that are very interesting.

Probably the most compelling is Asian character recognition. Forcing our QWERTY keyboard on Asian market segments is a thing of the past. Any OEMs that are missing that option are missing a potential market winner for their notebooks, or at least they’re locking themselves out of a certain segment of the market that will want to use this in the future.

Q: Do you expect N-trig’s technology to spread to other portable devices, such as phones?
A: Yes. Obviously, phones have already started to go there in a big way. We’re seeing predictions of 25, 30 percent of the phones will be utilizing multi-touch by 2011. I think 2010 will be the big year for migrating into touch for cell phones and computers. There’s a host of applications at the phone level. These phone applications are being migrated into the computer space and we see that even the iPhone-like applications moving into the computer space. Even more important, we see the traditional applications being rewritten. It’s happening almost overnight. But let me not limit it to the cell phone. Everyone’s been waiting for appliances. Appliances are touch-based. The very nature of appliances is you walk up use it shortly for a few moments then walk away from it. These are classic examples where you’ll want touch, and multi-touch especially.

Q: When you think of new applications for multi-touch, where do you and the company draw your inspiration from?
A: I’m the classic road warrior. I live in planes and hotels and I’m traveling most of the time. I could see immediately if I could do things fast, instantaneous with direct manipulation it’s much more powerful. Getting in the car very quickly you start using the GPS. Going off to a customer location or a meeting place. Having your GPS in your PC, having the ability to touch the screen, zoom, be able to pan around the map, to be able to do searches and at the touch of your finger while you’re driving. You start to see how the use models should be different from when we’ve used them in the past.

Q: What does a partnership between N-trig and the Windows 7 team look like? To what extent does N-trig have a say in what gestures are enabled in the OS?
A: The whole Win 7 development team has been working with our tools. If they see something they want to do and we don’t support it, we figure out how to support it. At the same time, if we have suggestions as to how they should support a particular feature or how they should take advantage of the technology we’re obviously very vocal. We have strong opinions about how to utilize our touch technology and what the users are going to want to do. They’re putting out a solution that does two things that are very important: number one, you’ve got to take advantage of certain base gestures, and it’s got to be built out throughout your OS and throughout your applications.

Secondarily, you’ve got to enable the more complex gestures. Gestures that might be unique to a specific application environment. I got a phone call from a guy who does nothing but application software for hedge fund managers. But  he created some very unique application gestures and multi-touch applications. He can hardly wait to get it into the marketplace because he knows no one else in the world is going to be able to give them a user experience like he can.

Q: You spent many years at Motorola before joining N-trig. How have you been able to leverage your experience working with an OEM to improve N-trig’s technology?
A: Number one, you learn the commodity business. This is a very cost-sensitive environment. It’s very much about having an ecosystem solution. You’ve got to solve all of the pieces. You can’t just provide a piece of hardware; you’ve got to have the software, the drivers, the firmware, you’ve got to have the relationship with the Microsoft’s, the ISVs, you’ve got to pull all those pieces together.

But I’ve also worked in a startup environment. I understand the need to create something where nothing exists. To create customers before there’s a product necessarily. It’s a chicken and the egg. Many of the ISVs are nothing more than small companies working in a niche market but with something that’s very compelling. There’s a whole new world of software applications that are going to open up to the PC users.

Q: If you had to predict, what would you say the catalyst will be for touch going mainstream?
A: That’s a hard one. I think that you have to have all the pieces. Having four out of five doesn’t cut it. We have to push into Microsoft, we have to push into the ISVs, show them what’s possible. We have to do demos, we have to get people to wrap their heads around it. Then they can take the next step but they can’t do that unless the business terms are there. Then we have to have a supply chain. We have to demonstrate that we can produce hundreds of thousands of units. Nobody wants to launch high volume notebooks until they can see that all of the supply chain pieces have been worked out. So that’s what N-trig has been doing over the last two years. All of those pieces now are in place. And I can’t see right now what could hold us back.

Q: Do you feel like the economy might slow the growth of touch?
A: Not as much as you would think. For the last year the foundation of the ecosystem has been building. We’ve talked to several ISVs who have told me they’ve been forced to cut out programs but they have not cut out touch. That’s one of the areas they continue to make their investments in.

Maybe it’s having an effect, but this is a trend everybody recognizes that’s crucial to their survival, that’s crucial to building customer loyalty, and it’s how they’re going to develop habits in their customers. Nobody can ignore that piece. And there’s a perfect example out there already: what happened to the cell phone guys who ignored the multi-touch trend? It’s been devastating in terms of market share for some of those phone companies.

Q: Do you expect more competition in this space?
A: I hope so. The difficult part t this point has been, we’re doing the hard work for the industry right now. We’re establishing guidelines that say touch has to be at this level of sensitivity before it can take off. Touch has to work all of the time. The applications have to be in place.  The OS has to be supporting it. All of these things are taking N-trig engineering resources. All of that’s  laying the groundwork making it easy for our competitions to follow. We’re ahead of the game, and we have all kinds of ideas for the future that will enable even more usability.