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Byte M.E.

Touching the cutting edge

Gulf News

I’m getting worried about what modern technology is doing to me. It wasn’t all that long ago that I was – at least in my own mind – a relatively articulate person with good computing skills. Again, I’m being relative here.

But if aliens were to observe me today, they’d probably think I was an idiot, capable of typing only with my thumbs, waving my fingers at computer screens and talking in clipped, nonsensical sentences.

I first began to notice something was wrong when I recently bought a new laptop for my wife. Not too long ago, I would have commandeered any new computer in the house under the pretext of “setting it up.” I would then have installed the most graphic-intensive game I owned and spent a few hours seeing what the machine could handle.

But this time, I only took the laptop out of the box because I needed to move some pictures from a digital camera to an ftp site. For some reason, I assumed this would be faster on a laptop than using an iPad.

After I worked through the setup, I got ready to work. That’s when I realized it. I haven’t actually sat down and used a laptop in – I’m guessing – two years. The new keyboard was too big and my palm kept hitting the touchpad, causing the cursor to bounce all over the screen and me to insert random bits of text into what were once readable sentences.

I’m actually more comfortable using the small, cramped Bluetooth keyboard that I bought for my iPad. The keys are so compact I could actually thumb wrestle myself while typing. Oddly enough, I’m still comfortable using a standard keyboard, but it’s rare that I type on a desktop computer unless I’m in the office.

The other problem with using a laptop after so long is that I kept poking the screen. Now, the computer is very cool; it has an i7 chip, lots of memory and 2GB of graphics processing. But, it certainly does not have a touch screen, unlike most of the other devices I use on a daily basis, and the new Windows 8 just begs to be touched.

It really makes you wonder about the mentality of companies that make laptop computers. Most of the tech world is working on touch screens, so why are most laptops still being shipped with non-touch screens?

Being forced to work solely with a keyboard and touchpad or mouse is just an in-your-face reminder that you’re working with technology that is three years behind the curve. Sure, most of the major computer manufactures are saying touch-screens will soon be everywhere, but a look at the shelves at the local computer store just drives home the point that “soon” isn’t now. It’s no wonder why tablets continue to eat into laptop sales.

By the time touch-screens are standard, laptop makers will probably realize they’re behind yet another user interface curve: voice.

Now, at this point in the timeline, it’s easy to spot the people using voice to communicate with their devices. They sound like morons. I’ve already found myself talking to my phone like someone with a weird form of E.T.- based Tourrette’s Syndrome:

“Galaxy. Phone home.” Then when that doesn’t work, “Galaxy. Hey, Galaxy. Phone. Home.”

I have made sure to avoid doing this in public. However, I really wonder what the neighbors are thinking when I try using voice with the Xbox. This is probably what they heard.

“Xbox. Bing Mall of the Emirates. No, not Americas. Xbox. Bing. Mall of the Emirates. Xbox. No, Xbox. Bing. Mall of the M Ar Etes. Screw it, where’s the keyboard?”

Admittedly, these have been times when voice commands have worked as advertised, and on the first try. I’ve found hotels, websites, and even – when I wasn’t concerned about embarrassing myself – been able to send a voice-created SMS.

The only major problem with voice-based input is that it’s web-based, so if you don’t have an Internet connection, your device won’t be able to understand a word you’re saying even if you sound like Frasier Crane. Broadband will either have to become ubiquitous or the software will have to find its way onto your computer before voice controls become mainstream, but neither of those problems is insurmountable in the next five years. Luckily, neither of those things will – if they continue to develop in their current forums – require laptop makers to make major upgrades to their hardware.

The only thing insurmountable is going to be a non-technical issue:

how to distinguish, in a world of voice-controlled devices, when someone is actually talking to you.