“Where are my touch laptops?”
It’s becoming the “where are my flying cars?” of the laptop music age.
And so it is that I’m here in Taipei, Taiwan, having spent today hanging out with Acer as they talk about what they’re doing with touch on their computers (laptops and tablets). The touch laptops are here in force – not a couple of netbooks or tablet PC oddities, but with the full-blown force of the PC industry behind them. The question now is whether we actually want them.
2012 was a little early to ask that question for the music audience; now the mature products – with Windows 8 behind them – are in the 2013 generation. I have some specific information to share, but I want to back up and consider some of the broader questions first. (If you just want to look at hardware, read later this week.)
It’s been nearly a decade since electronic musicians first started seeing touch in the wild. At the time, the power was immediately evident: you had the ability to imagine new ways of interfacing with music without the limitations of hardware knobs and faders. It was Star Trek: The Next Generation-style power, finally appearing in the real world. And that was a natural fit to musicians suddenly facing computer capabilities that lacked obvious form – sounds unfettered by the laws of acoustics and physical instruments. So it was also immediately apparent that eventually, you might want these touch interfaces to merge with your computer.
But since that first epiphany, the marriage of touch with conventional computers has been surprisingly slow in coming. Apple showed the way with iPhone and iPad, in their own categories. But laptops, with their hinged clamshell design, are another animal. Conventional software written for the mouse and keyboard can be simply awful when you start jabbing with your fat fingers, and the hinged design of a laptop leads to the dreaded “gorilla arm”: using a vertically-oriented display feels uncomfortable and makes your arms go numb. (On behalf of the gorillas of the world, I have no idea why this is called gorilla arm; maybe gorillas were unfairly subjected to usability testing in an early computer lab.)
So, why would you want a laptop to be touch-enabled, anyway, instead of a dedicated tablet running touch-centric software? Apple, for their part, has drawn a line in the sand and decided you don’t. Their MacBook line eschews touch beyond the trackpad, and focuses on conventional (still very powerful) software. The iPad is the platform for touch. Even years into a supposed “post-PC” age, software on the two remains very different – and the OS X software is far closer to its Windows brethren than iOS. Whatever rampant speculation about the two fusing, with the MacBook and iPad leading their respective sales categories, there doesn’t seem to be a logical motivation to fuse those two – least of all when Microsoft’s strategy to treat the two categories as blurred have initially fallen flat.
And let’s be clear – this can’t be understated – the iPad is working as a music platform, a new music platform. It’s working so well, in fact, that it’s easy to lose sight of whether its rivals are in the game.
But looking forward, there are reasonable arguments to adding touch to a laptop – itches that neither tablet nor conventional laptop can scratch.
1. You might want a bigger display than a tablet. (With the success of the iPad mini, and sales of smaller Android tablets or even the Kindle, tablets tend to like sizes at 10″ or far below.)
2. You might want some ports (note: plural) for connecting hardware – for us musicians, audio interfaces or controllers. That can be a difficult, expensive, or even impossible proposition on the iPad.
3. You might want more computational power. Apologies to brilliant chipmakers, but that again returns to size accommodations (think heat and battery requirements, in particular).
4. You might like to run any software, not just what’s available through a store. (Users run software made by developers, and so this means the narrower capabilities of development frameworks on those stores – Microsoft’s as well as Apple’s – don’t always fit what developers create.)
Or, to put it even more directly, why carry a laptop and a tablet if both are basically computers with displays? Why shouldn’t the laptop also offer an alternative to the tablet?
But could another PC maker give you a laptop you would want? Just as you might admire Apple for their focus on separate laptop and tablet categories, I think there’s a place for the PC OEMs exuberant experimentation. There, fans of natural selection will find, increasingly centered close to manufacturing in Asia, rapid iteration and a “let’s see what sticks,” all-categories-covered barage of product ideas. And some of these ideas do stick: Apple alone didn’t – couldn’t – build the one billion user global PC market. They’re just so far short of another real hit in this age.
Musicians don’t exactly make up a good picture of the global PC consumer base. But they do represent people who can push machines to their limits when it comes to expression and performance. They’re the ones using all those ports at once when average consumers don’t – and using their full bandwidth. They’re filling up hard drives and requiring maximum throughput when reading them. They’re the greatest test of every nuance of a touch display, every millisecond of latency, because they don’t just use them as an interface: they use them as an instrument.
And the clamshell laptop is in a way an icon of the revolution in computer music making – and the target of disdain. Think of how often – years into widespread music performance on computers – you hear complaints about “laptop” music, “laptop” performance, people checking their email, even the glowing fruit logo of a certain popular vendor as it hovers over audiences.
We’ve got another shot at seeing a replacement. What’s remarkable to me is, for all the success of the iPad, if you go to clubs or live shows, experimental or dance music, the best you’ll see the iPad do is sit next to a laptop. So there’s clearly something missing here.
Taking nothing away from other hardware and acoustic instruments and all the myriad ways you can make music, this question of whether you can make music with commodity computers remains interesting. Ever since Kraftwerk first wrote songs about the joys of appropriating business machines, musicians have continued to do fun things with mainstream hardware designed for a completely different purpose.
So – let’s become operators of our pocket calculators once again, and see how things are stacking up. I’ll have more on the specific hardware later this week, some impressions from Taipei (of Acer and others) and – because this takes some time to test and cover – at last through the rest of the year. (And yes, readers have been asking for this; now I think the time is right.)
In the meantime, it’s worth pointing to developer Chris Randall, who’s been tackling multi-touch with a very big external display. As the PC makers struggle to get it right in hardware, it turns out that making the actual music making software is an even bigger challenge. Chris writes:
As all regular readers of AI know, I’ve spent the better part of a year (and gone through two fairly expensive touchscreen monitors) trying to come up with a touch-based app for songwriting and live performance. I’ve just got my seventh (!!!) attempt working to the point where it can actually be used to make music, so I thought I’d toss up a quick video.
He puts together a combination of synth hardware, custom computer-generated noises, samples, and touch sequencing. Watch:
Well, the thing about a black canvas – the thing that makes it beautiful – is that it is open to a lot of possibilities. And those take time.
Tune in soon for the exciting … uh, continuation and very much not final conclusion … to our saga.
Naturally, having endured this editorial, if you have specific hardware or questions you’d like me to investigate while roaming the big PC vendors at Computex, Taipei, let me know now! I hope we’ll have more conversations with these makers in coming months.