Software special: touch screen technology – fingertip control

Despite several abortive attempts among touch screen vendors to make their
mark over the last decade or so, the hype around the technology is now starting
to mount. After the success of Apple with its iPhone, major mobile phone and PC
vendors are all beginning to jump on the bandwagon in anticipation of the
technology becoming the next big thing.

But the market is also expected to be given a further boost in October when
Microsoft launches its new Windows 7 operating system, which likewise supports
such functionality. The move could lead to the development of a new breed of
touch screen applications over the next 18 months or so, particularly in the
mobile arena for devices ranging from notebooks to laptops and PDAs.

As David Doyle, head of finance and employee transformation consulting at
Capgemini, says:
‘It’s about improving ease of use and is part of a general trend towards
enabling businesses to present their information in a more easily understood

But Jerry Rihll, managing director of
Reuters Digita
, which provides Microsoft-based finance and accountancy
applications, does not believe that the technology will take over the world any
time soon, although he does see potentially interesting uses for data browsing,
reviewing and presentation emerging over time.

‘I don’t see it transforming the way accountants use their desktop to process
client information or enter data.

You shouldn’t underestimate how effective keyboards and mice are for getting
information into a machine and touch screens don’t change the metaphor – they
just provide you with a virtual keyboard,’ he explains.

Another consideration is that existing applications would need to be
rewritten from scratch to exploit the new technology fully, but such an
expensive move is unlikely to be embraced by business software vendors unless
there is clear customer demand.

Even Microsoft appears to have reservations as to whether this will be the
case. According to Rihll, the vendor’s strategy is to put the technology out
onto the market, before waiting to see how it responds. But it has no current
plans to come out with a touch version of Excel – or any other Office
application – as yet. ‘It’s not on the agenda’, he says.

As a result, the initial focus of touch screen application developers is
likely to be more on gaming, kiosks and consumer software on mobile devices,
than on the business market per se. ‘We’re probably a year to 18 months away
from understanding if there’s a business requirement or whether there’s likely
to be a killer app for auditing or whatever,’ says Rihll.

There are also other factors that are likely to hinder swift take-up in the
business world, however. The first one is simply price. To go down the touch
screen route would involve replacing existing machines and monitors with new
higher-power tailored hardware, which can cost as much as 10% more than standard

As a result, Paul Booth, technical and development manager at the ICAEW’s IT
Faculty, believes that any adoption – which he sees as most likely to happen in
the laptop/notebook domain rather than on the desktop – will come via gradual
replacement rather than big bang implementations.

‘You might experiment on a small-scale, but you’d have to think twice about
rolling it out more broadly. You’d have to justify the expenditure and convince
yourself and others that there was a genuine business case and that’s difficult,
especially in a recession,’ he says.

This is not least because of the knock-on effect in terms of training to get
staff up to speed on using the new interface, a factor likely to lead to
temporary falls in productivity. Such a consideration is particularly true among
personnel who are wedded to their existing machines and their carefully written
Excel macros. But training is not the only concern, another relates to desktop

Roy Illsley, a senior analyst at Butler Group, explains: ‘The
keyboard/screen/mouse set up is governed by health and safety, but with touch,
you’re doing everything on a screen and that needs to be addressed because of
the potential impact on desk layout.’

A final thought relates to the idea that, even the most user-friendly
interface in the world is unlikely to help accountants undertake their jobs more
effectively if the underlying data they are using is inaccurate or complete.

‘The focus needs to be on the data architecture rather than the presentation
layer. If there isn’t any consistency and visibility and there’s no underlying
data integrity, a whizzy new front end isn’t going to help much,’ says Doyle.

Possible uses for the profession

Because data is presented in a more intuitive graphical form, touch screen
software would make it easier for forensic accountants, for example, to navigate
and search through information held in multiple documents or web sites. They
would no longer need to hold references in their heads because they would simply
have to touch a link, or, at the flick of a finger, circle pertinent information
and/or drag and drop it elsewhere.

Another possible use is as a checklist-based auditing tool running on a
tablet PC. Ticks or crosses could be added to the application as the audit
proceeded, with the client being able to sign the document at the end of the

But into the long term, Capgemini’s David Doyle believes that the biggest use
for touch screen applications is likely to be in the business intelligence
arena. The technology has particular appeal in presenting financial data to
non-specialist senior business executives and/or clients in an
easy-to-understand format, particularly if combined with third party geog
raphical data such as Google Maps.

‘So you could have a satellite image of different sites and drill down into
the information relating to each one. It’s about a front end that represents the
world in the way we see it as humans to make it clear graphically where the
business’ strengths and weaknesses are,’ Doyle says.

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