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The rise of the smartphone

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Touchscreen technology is here to stay. Whether it be smartphones, mobile devices or - increasingly with the introduction of Windows 7 - laptops, the ability to put fingers onto a screen and interact directly represents a wonderful addition to the way we live and work.

With this in mind I sat down for a chat with Dr. Andrew Hsu, Synaptics' strategic and technical marketing manager. For those unfamiliar with Synpatics, it is a California based company with a long history in building touchpads and capacitive touchscreens for major brands in the electronics industry. Its touchpads have appeared in laptops from the likes of Asus, Acer, Dell, HP, Sony, Toshiba, Gateway, IBM, Lenovo, LG, Samsung, Packard Bell and more. It's interface technology is in the Apple iPod and iPod mini, Creative ZEN line and Microsoft's second generation Zunes. Chances are, you're probably navigating this article right now using something made by Synaptics.

Synaptics has a long and established history in touchpads, but it is touchscreen technology - capacitive in particular - which is now on everyone's lips. Why do you think this is?

"I think 2006 was a big year in development. People don't realise this but the first capacitive touchscreen phone to market wasn't the iPhone, it was in the LG Prada which we provided. Obviously then came the iPhone in the middle of the year though and it spun the industry around. {Apple} had a very clever campaign, it didn't emphasize the technology, it just showed users the benefits. Since then it has taken quite a bit of time for handset competitors to understand this tech because it relies not just on the type of screen but in developing a dedicated UI as well. If just one part, any part, is suboptimal the product reflects poorly and we have seen this a lot up to now."

One of the biggest talking points for our readers recently is resistive verses capacitive touchscreen technology. Capacitive certainly seems more responsive at present but there are flaws too.

"Yes, you'll be referring to stylus input and they are right - it continues to be something to investigate. For those who need a stylus this is a big issue and while {capacitive screens} will work with certain types of stylus it is not as simple as resistive which recognises any blunt object. We have got some prototype solutions that work but in truth I don't believe we need it that badly. The bigger challenge is convincing handset designers that you can have a reasonable input experience just with fingers. The problem started in the early days of MP3 players when there were a lot of objections to capacitive as it doesn't work well with gloves or with moisture on the device."

What changed?

"Apple and Google - they revolutionised the marketplace for mobile devices and both with their first phones {the iPhone and G1}. They were the first to unite the benefits of capacitive screens with specifically built software. The mobile ecosystem tends to be a little bit fragmented and there have been a lot of industry discussions trying to comprehend how these two outsiders came in and revolutionised the marketplace while the established order sat around. This changed mindsets and the good news is we are finally starting to see devices that embrace the overall user experience."

Talking of the G1, there has been a great deal of column inches given up about why that device - or indeed subsequent touchscreen devices - didn't feature multi-touch functionality. Can Synaptics' experience clear this up for us?

"In short all capacitive screens are multi-touch capable, it is whether they are enabled at the level of the sensor or not. I'm not a legal expert but we haven't seen anything that precludes us from offering the ability to implement multi-touch gestures for any handset maker. I have reason to suspect there is some commercial or business interest to take into consideration. Multi-touch operation does also take practice, so I suspect that frightened away some more traditional companies."

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