I have read a lot in recent months about Windows 8, Microsoft’s latest incarnation of its flagship Windows operating system. While there are many new features over and above its Windows 7 predecessor, one thing that makes me quite curious about Windows 8 is its optimization for touchscreen technology.
Note that I have yet to use Windows 8, but I have used several other touchscreen devices on the market (think tablets, phones, MP3 players, etc.). In general, I like the touchscreen interface for what these devices are fundamentally designed to do: consume information or data. Touchscreens are great for reading, playing games, listening to music, and browsing the Internet. But I think they are significantly less useful for generating information or data beyond writing a document, using a spreadsheet, or taking photographs. Microsoft’s Windows 8, however, has me thinking a bit more about the usability of touchscreen environments for one simple reason: the simulation and analysis tools I work with everyday only run on a Windows platform (currently WinXP or Win7).
My keyboard and mouse are indispensable for creating schematics, running simulations, and analyzing simulation data. Like most folks, I am pretty adept at using these mechanical devices to tell my computer what to do. But if operating system suppliers continue their focus on touchscreen technology (and I expect they will), it is only a matter of time before Electric Design Automation (EDA) vendors will have to revamp their tools for a touchscreen environment. What will that future look like from an EDA tool user’s perspective? Admittedly, my crystal ball is a bit cloudy on this topic. I can visualize touchscreen use for simple circuits, but as designs get more complex, I see touchscreen technology being more of a road block than a useful utility. Creating detailed system schematics, or routing compact PC boards, often requires precise onscreen graphics control – something my mouse gives me, but my extra-large hands and fingers are much less adept at without a significant touchscreen zoom factor. But maybe I am trying to view the future of EDA user interfaces through my limited “what I know now” lens. Perhaps it’s time to throw away what I know about user interface design and start with a fresh set of ideas.
Hollywood’s depiction of user interfaces (think of the Ironman or Batman movie franchises, for example) show futuristic screens that appear in front of users and are manipulated not by a mouse and keyboard, but by hand movements and gestures (okay, even my Wii and Xbox can already do some of this, though I don’t expect to use either for system design any time soon). This Hollywood vision is, by definition, even more optimistic than current touchscreen implementations. But maybe someday our interactions with technology will imitate the movies. I for one am very interested to see how EDA tools will adapt to user interface advances. What do you think the future of EDA tool interfaces looks like?