iPhone, Multi-Touch, and the “Death of the Button”

In order to understand why interaction designers are so excited about the iPhone, we have to take a look at multi-touch technology.


What exactly is multi-touch?

Multi-touch is a human-computer interaction technique and the hardware devices that implement it. It is a kind of touch screen or touch tablet / touchpad that recognizes multiple simultaneous touch points, frequently including the pressure or degree of each independently, as well as position. This allows gestures and interaction with multiple fingers or hands, chording, and can provide rich interaction, including direct manipulation, through intuitive gestures.

FingerWorks produced a line of keyboards that incorporated multi-touch gestures. FingerWorks has since been purchased by Apple, who has incorporated the technology into its iPhone.

Multi-touch has at least a 25 year history, beginning in 1982, with pioneering work being done at the University of Toronto (multi-touch tablets) and Bell Labs (multi-touch screens).

Read more about the history of Multi-Touch

Multi-Touch and the iPhone

Bruce Tognazzini says:

While the iPhone as a whole may be revolutionary, the individual elements forming the interface are not so new. Multi-touch gestural interfaces have been hanging around in the laboratory, screaming for release, for as long as the mouse hung around. I’ve been pushing multi-touch gestural for over 20 years myself, beginning while I was still at Apple, incredulous that everyone has been ignoring it. Apple stopped ignoring it.


What’s important is that, for the first time, so many great ideas and processes have been assembled in one device, iterated until they squeak, and made accessible to normal human beings. That’s the genius of Steve Jobs; that’s the genius of Apple.

Fulton didn’t invent the steamboat. He just put in the hard work to make it practical. Apple didn’t invent the concept of the multi-touch interface. They’ve just, by all evidence, built the first one that, like the Mac before it, is (relatively) inexpensive, attractive, and accessible.

The Death of the Button

Apple’s adoption of multi-touch technology is really a momentous event. Bringing multi-touch to the mainstream in the form of what will no doubt be a blockbuster product, could signal what Bill DeRouchey calls the “death of the button,” effectively ushering in a new era of interaction design.

Death of the iPod?

If there is one thing that could topple the reign of the iPod, it would be the iPhone. What is interesting about the iPhone is that it has brought with it an opportunity for Apple to test the concept of the iPhone with ANOTHER revolutionary interface…does this mean sayonara scroll wheel? Only time will tell.

Related Post: Multi-touch Screen: the Future of the Computer Interface