HP Touch-Screen Computer Sparks Debate

The TouchSmart IQ770, which shipped at the end of January, isn't dependent on a stylus like today's tablet PCs, but lets people use their fingers to call up pictures, listen to music, and read notes left by other family members. People can use a stylus to write on the home computer's 19-inch screen, or use its wireless keyboard and mouse, but the innovation is in the finger-controlled interaction with the PC's software.

Product reviewers like the concept and the hardware, but the first-generation machine has gotten low marks for price -- it costs $1,800 -- and for being slow. Some of the software also has bugs, which HP will have to address in future versions.

Nevertheless, analysts on Thursday said HP is on to something. It's the first major computer maker to launch a finger-controlled touch-screen computer, and gets the thumbs up for going to market with something different in human-computer interaction -- an area that's been lacking in creativity for the 30 years PCs have been around. "In many ways, it's a revolutionary device," Sam Bhavnani, analyst for Current Analysis, says. "It highlights innovation from HP."

The less-than-stellar reviews the machine has gotten have focused on failures in the software, which Bhavnani said should improve in subsequent generations. "It's the first go around, and the software will improve over time," he said. "It's not like the touch screen doesn't work."

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While agreeing that HP is on the right track, Harry Wang, analyst for Parks Associates, bristled at the price. People are unlikely to pay $1,800 to replace post-it notes on refrigerators or to watch TV, which is another function of the TouchSmart. "It's really based on whether [HP] can provide a low-cost alternative to the kitchen TV that can also offer relatively easy access to applications."

Wang believes the price would have to drop by $1,200 or more to be attractive to consumers as a kitchen appliance.

HP on Thursday said it could release less expensive TouchSmart models, and expected prices in general to drop as volume sales increased. Nevertheless, the company insisted the current price was justified because the machine is also a high-end PC running Windows Vista Premium.

As to the touch-screen hardware, the company was looking at other home devices where it could be used. "Now that it's out, there will be some new opportunities to bring additional experiences to customers," HP spokeswoman Ann Finnie says.

But not all analysts are hot on the touch-screen concept for computers. Jon Peddie, analyst and founder of Jon Peddie Research, says screens similar to the TouchSmart's were introduced 20 years ago in computer-aided design in engineering. When working in front of such a screen for long periods of time, designers found that their arms got tired really fast, Peddie said.

"[Touch screens] could augment the mouse, but they're not going to replace it anytime soon," Peddie said. "I don't see it being a significant contributor to productivity."

Nevertheless, analysts agree that time will tell whether HP eventually gets it right, and whether rivals Dell and Gateway decide to enter the ring.

This story was modified on March 1 to include comments from Hewlett-Packard.