Last week, in an essay criticizing Adobe’s Flash platform, Apple CEO Steve Jobs drew attention to, among other things, its lack of support for touch–something essential to the experience of an iPhone or iPad. “Flash was designed for PCs using mice, not for touch screens using fingers,” Jobs wrote.
But Flash is hardly the only Web software that wasn’t designed to handle touch, and the advent of touch-based devices “is almost asking the entire Web to change its behavior from what’s been built up over 20 years,” says Raju Vegesna, evangelist for Zoho, a company based in Pleasanton, CA, that produces a suite of complex online Web applications.
Individual problems are often small, but they add up to something more significant, Vegesna says. For example, roll-over interactions are common on many websites, but these don’t work on touch devices. Other common tricks, such as hovering over a link to see the connected URL in the status bar, have to be adjusted before a user can perform the same function.
A serious problem for companies like Zoho that specialize in complex Web software is that many sites aren’t equipped with the ability to trigger the “soft keyboards” used on touch devices. Vegesna explains that touch devices pop up a keyboard when they recognize a text field on a Web page, but it’s different for the more complex editors used as part of Zoho’s online word processors. These usually cannot trigger a soft keyboard to pop up, leaving users frustrated.
“This is a big user interface problem for Web applications,” Vegesna says, “and means that many will need to be redesigned.”
These issues are significant but nothing new, says Ben Bederson, an associate professor at the human-computer interaction lab at the University of Maryland. “There are a wide range of input and output devices,” Bederson says. “Whether you are building a Web app, Flash app, or native app, you have to decide which range of devices you’re going to support.”
Bederson notes that Web designers will have to wrestle with several issues when considering touch computers. For one thing, touch interfaces don’t give users the fine-grained control that they have with a mouse. Though tests have shown that a stylus can be an effective substitute, Bederson notes that the market has largely rejected that option. So designers need to simplify a website and increase the size of interaction points such as buttons and scrollbars.