Who could forget the famous scene in the film "Minority Report," where mid-21st century detective John Anderton -- the Tom Cruise character -- is using his hands to quickly manipulate data on computer screens?

Given the popularity of our modern-day "gesture-based" gadgets, such as the Apple iPhone and HTC Touch, and innovative new computer interfaces, such as HP's TouchSmart PCs and Microsoft's "Milan" Surface tabletop, perhaps science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick's vision of future wasn't so far off after all.

The question, however, remains: Are "touch" applications relevant for the small business market?

"Touch screens these days are enjoying the consumer and enterprise spotlight more than ever before, thanks largely to the success of Apple's iPhone," says Carmi Levy, senior vice president for strategic consulting at AR Communications, a Toronto-based marketing communications firm. "The device's innovative multi-touch features have focused new attention on an interface technology that up until this year had been flagging because of flatness in the PDA market."

Now that Apple has seemingly struck gold with its interface, Levy says competitors that weren't too keen to go touch are suddenly investing in the technology. For example, Research In Motion, the Ontario-based manufacturer of the BlackBerry, which has long insisted it had no plans to integrate touch screen technology into its handheld devices, is reported to have begun work on just such a technology for its next-generation mobile platform after seeing the success of Apple's iPhone, Levy says.

Jupiter Research's vice president and research director, Michael Gartenberg, mirrors Levy's admiration for the iPhone. "Touch-screen devices have been around for a long time but Apple went back to the drawing board [and made] touch the primary interface, designed for your fingers to do the walking, instead of trying to add touch to applications designed for keyboard or mouse."

"This is the future — expect a lot more of 'touch' in 2008 and beyond, and from many different companies," adds Gartenberg.

Simplicity is 'name of the game'

Levy says small business is keenly interested in doing more with less because owners don't have massive IT budgets and they don't have the time to learn complex new technologies. "Their staff, assuming they even have staff to begin with, is already so multitasked that whatever technology they use just has to work the first time they turn it on," explains Levy.

"Simplicity is the name of the game, and complex interfaces and applications run counter to this need," continues Levy. "Staff can get up to speed faster on a well-designed touch screen application than they can on a touchless one because features are more easily found and accessed."

Touch is an intuitive human response, Levy says. Software designers who understand this and manage to integrate this thinking into touch-enabled applications will gain advantage.

Will Windows offer 'touch'

A Microsoft engineer recently leaked the new that the next version of the Windows operating system -- currently code-named Windows 7 -- will also have integrated touch features. Not surprisingly, Microsoft recently showed off a prototype for its Surface tabletop computer, which lets users navigate through data and media using fingertips.

"Touch-screen computers can have a productivity advantage but the applications must be optimized for the interface and not trying to fit a square peg in a round hole," says Gartenberg. "One of the problems with the first Tablet PC applications, for example, is they never felt quite right."

The advantages of touch screens for small businesses tend to fall into two broad categories: employee-enabling and customer-facing, says Levy. "Employee-enabling advantages include more capable mobile applications for in-the-field employees, richer applications in internal-mobile scenarios, such as tablets in warehouses and on medical wards, as well as staff training initiatives," Levy says. "Customer-facing scenarios include kiosks, retail, and restaurant point-of-sale and customer self-service." An example of the latter includes self-checkout machines at supermarkets, where consumers use a touch-screen and barcode scanner to pay for products.