Forget the keypad. Ignore the stylus. Advanced touch-screen panels are making mobile phones and other handheld communication devices more intuitive and personal to use. A new generation of smartphones - handsets that combine the best features of mobile phones and personal digital assistants - is championing minimalist, user-friendly design. Features include multi-touch colour screens for making calls, navigating the internet, sending e-mails and text messages, watching video and using business applications. Two of the most aggressively publicised multi-touch products, iPhone from Apple and the recently released Touch from Taiwan-based High Tech Computer (HTC), feature few, if any, press buttons to activate their hardware. 'Mobile-phone makers have done a great job of cramming ever-more exciting features into ever-smaller phones. But the way in which one can access these increasingly sophisticated features has not kept up,' says HTC chief executive Peter Chou Yung-ming. 'The multi-touch experience makes smartphones simple to use and attractive to more people, not just to techies. We believe this is a big trend that will be accepted by the mass market. The elegant touch-screen design makes it easy to convince consumers to try smartphones.' Touch screens are overlays to the liquid crystal displays used on smartphones, PDAs, cellular handsets, automated teller machines, portable game consoles and point-of-sale systems in stores. These overlays act as an input device capable of displaying and receiving information on the same screen. Most touch-screen displays are designed for a single touch, meaning they can register only one point of contact at a time. If two or more touches occur simultaneously, most touch screens will register either the latest touch point or an area in between, according to technology research firm iSuppli. It says multi-touch screens - displays that respond to multiple touches simultaneously and can be integrated with camera and video technologies - have become an option for smartphones, thanks to the enormous interest in Apple's iPhone, which launched in the United States last week. The iPhone, referred to by Apple as a 'widescreen iPod', has a 3.5-inch display with touch controls for play-pause, chapter forward-backward and volume functions. Apple owns one of the multi-touch screen patents used on its Macintosh operating-system-based handset, says iSuppli. HTC's touch-screen panel technology, TouchFLO, rivals the iPhone's navigation and access capabilities. The Touch smartphone, which runs Microsoft's Windows Mobile 6 operating system, allows the user to sweep their finger up the screen to launch an animated, three-dimensional display comprising three windows: Contacts, Media and Applications. Swiping a finger right or left accesses all of the device's features. 'With one touch, I can check e-mail, send SMS, browse my calendar and contact list, and even check up-to-date weather information,' says actor Ekin Cheng Yee-kin, who was a guest at the Hong Kong launch of HTC's Touch last month. Technically, HTC's Touch and the iPhone may seem conservative compared to other smartphones on the market. Both devices, for example, feature a 2-megapixel camera and EDGE cellular connection. Nokia's N95 slider handset, by comparison, sports a 5-megapixel camera and a faster 3G cellular connection. To focus on specifications alone, though, ignores the newcomers' best asset - the intuitive screen. 'Touch screens project a higher-end product,' says Stanley Kee, commercial director of imaging and telecommunication at market research firm GfK Asia. Chou says the touch-screen design's clean interface eliminates the need for a stylus. 'If you're inside a taxi or on the MTR, for example, it's difficult to be sure of hitting the right part of the screen [using a stylus]. You could end up scratching the device,' he says. Kee notes that touch-screen panels are so much easier to use than handset keypads that users rarely return to the older format. 'When you become used to writing on a touch screen and controlling the device with it, it can be a mental and physical hurdle to switch back to a device with no touch screen,' Kee says. The benefits are expected to trigger greater demand for smartphones. 'One benefit we are already seeing is a greater emphasis from handset original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) on improving usability and making interaction with the handset easy and intuitive for media and productivity applications,' says David Kerr, vice-president of the global wireless practice at consulting firm Strategy Analytics, discussing the hype behind iPhone and the multi-touch screen option. 'Traditional handset OEMs must improve or face being cast aside by [cellular network] operators looking for strong usability and brands to drive their data service initiatives.' In Hong Kong, cellular network operator CSL is the first distributor of HTC's Touch smartphone. 'The device is ideal for our messaging services, such as e-mail and Mobile MSN,' says CSL New World's outgoing chief executive Hubert Ng Ching-wah. GfK Asia estimates the smartphone market in the 11 markets it covers in the Asia-Pacific region - mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia and the Philippines - will have sales of 4.8 million units, worth more than US$1.9 billion this year. Those figures have risen from the 2.8 million units, worth about US$1.24 billion, sold last year. The top smartphone brands in Asia in the first quarter this year were - in alphabetical order - Amoi, Dopod, Motorola, Nokia and Sony Ericsson, according to GfK Asia. Last year, the top brands were Dopod, Motorola, Nokia, O2 and Sony Ericsson. Kee says smartphones made up about 1.5 per cent of the US$32.9 billion total mobile phone market last year in the countries covered by GfK Asia. But the opportunity to broaden the application of advanced multi-touch screens beyond smartphones, personal navigation devices and game consoles, such as the Nintendo DS, looks promising. The market for multi-touch screens is set to grow to US$433.1 million by 2012, rising at about 30.8 per cent a year from US$112.9 million this year, according to iSuppli. 'Demand for touch-screen displays is being driven primarily by the mobile phone and consumer electronics industries,' says Jennifer Colegrove, senior analyst at iSuppli. 'However, as the market matures, iSuppli believes touch-screen displays will find a role in nearly every aspect of electronics life - from planes, to automobiles, to machine-control systems, to home appliances.'