It is an exciting time to be in the world of software development, yet by the same token, it is a scary time. The pace of change seems to be ever-increasing, and things that were stable for a long, long time are experiencing revolutions. User interfaces and user interaction modalities are no exception and may be the areas that end up causing the most turmoil for development teams in the years ahead.

The question used to be whether an application was best suited to Windows, which required an installer, or if it would benefit from an installer-free Web application format. We still get to make that decision, though it is further complicated by client technology choices, but now there are extra dimensions that complicate decisions far more than extra choices. There is a batch of technologies pushing the possibilities of interface design to the next level.

If HTML5 jumped to mind, then you are on the tame side. While HTML5 does promise to bring media and game-like interfaces to the browser, it is not going to be nearly as disruptive as products like the Microsoft Surface and Kinect. They represent the wild side of things because they embody moving away from the keyboard and mouse input as the primary interface to the application. These are not just for games, as we will see by the examples of where these technologies are being leveraged already. (If you have not heard of the Surface before, in its first version, it is a coffee table-sized and shaped computer screen that lets users interact with it via as many as 20 discrete, simultaneous touch points.)

There is a strong temptation to consider these as amusing niche technologies that do not have any bearing on the future of business applications or even consumer applications beyond games. For another year or two, that is probably a low-cost strategy, but it assumes that this is not the direction of things to come, and that is a mistake. The danger for developers and project managers is that there is risk in adopting these new technologies immediately and there are risks in not embracing them early enough. If you ignore them, the world can—and likely will—pass you by. If you embrace them and try to just wedge them into your old designs, things are not going to work. The trick is to understand where they fit and how they can be used effectively.

Reach out and touch
The first of the next-generation interfaces that everyone would agree has fully infiltrated society—and done so seemingly with blinding speed—is touch interfaces on smartphones. It is easy to overlook this development since it seems to be niche and suited to purpose rather than the start of a change in the bigger picture. All of the smartphones out on the market that are vying for dominance use the touch interface made popular by Apple with the iPhone. Apple did not invent touch as an interface of course, but it certainly brought it mainstream.

Now, flick and pinch are part of the general computing vocabulary. If that last sentence contains two words that have no meaning for you, and English is your primary language, then you must get up to speed with touch interfaces and jargon immediately. Step one is to get a touch interface phone most likely running an OS from Microsoft, Apple or Google, and then use this guide to explore the touch interface. Even if you know what flick and pinch mean, you might find the guide useful.

The mistake is to assume that this revolution ends with phones. We are already seeing that tablets are participating in this touch revolution, and the coming Windows 8 has already sworn allegiance to supporting touch in a big way at its core. It is not just for games and it is not just for phones. If you have trouble imagining how this will spread to business apps or productivity applications in general, then join the club, but that is all the more reason to get ahead in understanding the potential. As you will see, these are some of the places where next-generation interfaces are already making inroads. Computers beyond tablets are the next step in the progression, and Microsoft’s Surface, which will soon be released as version 2, embodies where this interface can go.

If Microsoft appears to be playing catch-up in the next generation interface space because of the early success of others in the phone market, then you might be surprised to learn that it is actually a pioneer. While Apple unveiled the iPhone in January 2007, Microsoft started on the Surface in 2001.

About Patrick Hynds

Patrick Hynds is a Regional Director for Microsoft and president of CriticalSites.