The joy of touch, and how Apple are killing it

An opinion piece from the archive about my love-affair with tactile user interfaces, and how I felt Apple was leaving that behind.

I like to touch things. A few years back I bought a DAB and Internet radio because I wanted a physical piece of kit that had buttons, and wasn’t controlled by my increasingly-ubiquitous (then) PC. I enjoyed driving a radio studio that used CD players because of the tactile fun it provided, and millions of us have played with the iconic iPod wheel to navigate around our music collection, or that of our friends.

But now with the latest lineup of iPods, Apple have killed off that iconic design in favour of a flat, dead and unresponsive touch screen. This makes me sad, partly because it ushers in the end of an era, but also because it demonstrates a level of laziness in product design.

The iPod wheel is arguably Apple’s most important design choice. It made people buy iPods which meant Apple could spend more on developing new products which its growing audience would now begin to take more seriously. The iPod was an just an MP3 player, but its iconic design and clever marketing is what makes people think the device lives in a different category (how many people do you know that think iPods and MP3 players are different things?)

But apart from how it looked, it felt great to use. Successive versions improved on it, adding momentum and smoothness. It set the device apart, and now that it’s gone, the iPod is once again just an MP3 player. A really, really good one, but still.

Touch screens are old hat, and haptic feedback is years off and won’t ever really cut it. It’s time for the next generation of great product designers to conjure up ways to make devices that are fun to hold, to touch, to play with.

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