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Fingerprints everywhere! Are we ready for 4 million dirty Windows 8 touchscreens?

Mark Sullivan | Oct. 17, 2012
When multitudes of Windows 8 users start playing with newly purchased hardware in the coming weeks and months, they'll encounter an indignity that once afflicted only smartphone and tablet users: dirty, smudgy, fingerprint-riddled touchscreens.

When multitudes of Windows 8 users start playing with newly purchased hardware in the coming weeks and months, they'll encounter an indignity that once afflicted only smartphone and tablet users: dirty, smudgy, fingerprint-riddled touchscreens.

Ah, yes, the dreaded smudge. It's a problem we've all come to grudgingly accept on mobile device screens, but PC users generally aren't so accepting of people touching-let alone leaving fingerprints ontheir desktop displays.

If Microsoft executive Keith Lorizio has his way, some 400 million Windows 8 devices will be active by July 1, 2013. Lorizio was surely including nontouch legacy machines when he made this optimstic declaration last week, and Microsoft has already backed away from Lorizio's comments. But the fact remains that desktop computing is about to get very, very dirty.

So just what is the tech industry doing to head off the collision between PC screens and fingers? Or will desktop users simply resign themselves to a life where dirty screens become the new normal?

If we look to the mobile industry for answers, we see that accessory makers are taking the lead in fingerprint control, answering consumer demand for products that protect phones and tablets from not just smudges, but cracks.

Meanwhile, the hardware manufacturers and their touchscreen suppliers have so far not invested heavily in new science that might stop screen smudging. Rather, they're taking a much more measured, less expensive approach.

Our impression is that smudge-proof touchscreens are still pretty far from becoming commercially available, says IDC tablets and displays analyst Linn Huang. Right now the most elegant solution available is the manufacturers including a free, small terrycloth to use to wipe the screen with each tablet they ship.

Nor are computer manufacturers investing heavily in in-house research that might lead to an effective smudge-resistant surface. Instead, this type of research is happening in universities like Northwestern and MIT, and in various institutional research facilities around the world, such as the Max Planck Institute in Germany and GE Global Research.

Two approaches to resisting smudges

Researchers pursue two strategies for making better oleophobic screens (oleophobic literally means lacking affinity for oils). Some scientists try to advance the chemical treatment approach now used by Apple and others, while others work on applying new physical textures on screen surfaces, textures that are unfriendly to oil and liquid.

Chemical treatments

Apple was the first large tech brand to apply an oleophobic chemical treatment to the screens of a major product line. The glass screen of the iPhone 3GS was covered with an organic, carbon-based polymer that prevents oil from the skin from sticking to the screen. Instead, the oil (from the user's fingers, cheek, ear, or nose) stays bonded together in droplets, but not bonded with the screen.

 

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