Why Does Everything at CES Look Like an Android Phone?

The look and feel of electronics always coalesces into "standards": the beige PC, the pyramid-backed tube TV, the two-button mouse. At CES this year, we're seeing a new decade of visual language emerge--and it's all about touch.

Sure, the iPhone has made touch-operation a gimmick often copied in the last couple of years. But for 2010, we're starting to see OEMs take touch seriously into their design philosophy with more refined enclosures and smarter software integration. (Sorry, stylus-lovers. Your era is waning.)

Google Nexus One Smartphone Official Image

But the emerging phenotype isn't straight Apple-mimickry, no--in fact, most of the touchy gizmos we've seen recently look ever more like Android devices than iPhones, with several hard buttons to complement their screens.

The new Slingbox remote, called Sling Touch Control 100, does all the stuff you'd expect: you can search for shows, browse channels, and discover new stuff. How? Five hard keys and a touch interface for scrolling, selecting and so on. (Sling's new Sling Monitor, a small TV-like display, shares the same button-and-D-pad motif.)

New e-readers are falling in line as well, with new models like the Alex by Spring Design. The Kindle may be the e-book champion so far, but competitors aren't mimicking its UI. Instead, they're going with their own five- or six-button system of hardkeys, accompanied by a touch-screen. The B&N Nook (below at left, beside an Alex) and the Sony e-readers follow a similar layout, albeit with their own visual twist.

Other examples abound, even on low-tech hardware like digital cameras even radar detectors.

Interestingly, even companies that are most intently mimicking Apple's aesthetic in other products are opting to Android-ize them, too. Compare this Lenovo desktop PC, the IdeaCentre 300A, to an iMac. Country cousins--but one with hard buttons on the bezel.

Not everyone likes this. To touch purists (a group I'd personally call "people who know what they're talking about") the idea of a touch-screen with a panel of hard buttons is an abortive usability headache. Back when the G1 was shiny and new, for example, TechCrunch said:

And he wasn't just talking about the physical keyboard.

The G1 forces you to switch back and forth between hardware and touchscreen inputs all the time. It is annoying and jarring.

Loren Brichter, the award-winning developer of Tweetie for Mac and iPhone and a bona fide UI prodigy, had similar thoughts about Google's Nexus One.

Companies are following the format even when they're not making the hardware, leaving an absurd gallery of buttons when apps like Chevy's are viewed on some devices.

At least others are experimenting fruitfully. Light Blue Optics has been working on something like this for years, but they're finally close to production on a "holographic laser projection" keyboard that turns any surface into a touch-screen.

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