Microsoft's decision to focus the new Windows 8 primarily on touch input is one gutsy move.
It is a reinvention of Windows following a very solid performance of Windows 7 that could boost Microsoft's image tremendously and reignite a perception of innovation and passion. However, success isn't a given, and Windows 8 could also turn into a disaster of epic proportions.
You could not have possibly escaped the blog and video coverage of Windows 8 if you are somewhat interested in what is happening around the world. Microsoft's first detailed look at what Windows 8 will be, how it will work, and how it will shift the user experience, is a much more dramatic change in the operating system than most of us can remember. It's more significant than the switch from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 in 1994. A much more appropriate comparison to the Metro Style GUI would be the upgrade from DOS to the Windows GUI, when the surface of the operating system became mouse-centric. This time, 26 years later, Microsoft is suggesting that it is time for us to leave the mouse behind and accept touch as our primary way to interact with a PC.
Those of us who have been around long enough may remember that Windows was not an instant hit. Windows 1.0 was announced in 1985, but its window manager was severely limited. Windows 2.0 in 1987 was significantly improved, but it was held back by design shortcomings and the sheer dominance of DOS. That changed with Windows 3.0 in 1990 and then especially with Windows 3.1 in 1992, which laid the foundation for the success of Windows as we know it today. It was also the breakthrough of the mouse as the main controller device for the GUI and applications. Ninety-nine percent of users today could not imagine using a PC without a mouse or derivate devices such as trackpads or trackballs. Touch is a seismic shift that is obviously targeted at a new generation of users who are growing up with smartphones and tablets (iPads) and prefer to touch a screen rather than use a mouse cursor and a physical keyboard to control their input.
Those of us who are 30+ years old will have to rethink the way we interact with computers. Younger users are likely to be much more accepting and malleable. Children may not know anything else but touch to use computers and already feel that using a mouse is antiquated.
The upside of the touch interface is the fact that Microsoft can capitalize on an existing trend in tablets, a trend that is being adopted naturally by a new generation of users. A plethora of users have been exposed to touch computing in some way, which indicates that the shift to touch computing is not as dramatic as we may think. Smartphones are now sold in numbers above the 100 million mark every quarter. Touch gestures are becoming standard and are about as easy to understand as moving a mouse. All of us could also benefit from an innovation potential in new types of applications that could be imagined beyond the mouse. Cloud computing may add to that experience by creating a seamless user model across different platforms. However, Microsoft also has challenges ahead, and not all of its arguments make sense at this time. Here is some food for thought.
1. Touch is not for everyone and is not for every device.
Microsoft said that Windows 8 can also be used with the old keyboard and mouse input devices, but it stressed that touch is the primary input type for which Windows 8 is designed. We must be honest and admit that there is not much value in Windows 8 without touch, even if the system memory requirements are just about half of those of Windows 7. Windows 8 will be running on a greater variety of computers, including ARM devices, which dramatically expand the Windows ecosystem. Touch is a big deal in that respect, but on computing devices there is some doubt.
Apple taught us that the user experience is what counts, not the technology that enables it. As a result, Apple designed the software and hardware that creates that experience. Microsoft delivers a technology foundation lest others alter that experience by creating the hardware. A few days ago, I discussed the touch problems of software and hardware developers with an executive at a company that is developing touch applications for a high-profile tablet that is arriving soon. He trashed current tablets as being "buggy" and "desperate," which makes it difficult to come up with great applications that work well even on touch-specific tablets. He especially complained about "silly" form factors that ignore what Apple teaches. It may be even tougher to build touch applications on a PC.
One of the reasons may be that a traditional PC, or a notebook with a keyboard in front of the screen, isn't "touch-convenient." You have to reach across the keyboard and deal with a bouncing screen when interacting with your PC. Will you use the onscreen keyboard instead of your physical keyboard? No. After some time, you may use the trackpad and keyboard again, because it is much faster and more comfortable to use than the touch input method. Touch generally does not work on vertical screens, and Windows 8 is unlikely to change that.
Another downside is processing time. Onscreen keyboards cannot be used as quickly as physical keyboards. There is recognition and processing time involved that introduces a delayed input, which we may not want all the time. In some scenarios, that may not be a big deal, but in others, you may just want to write a quick email. Fact: You will write three emails on a traditional keyboard in the time you write one on a touchscreen today.
3. Those fingerprints
Microsoft's Windows president Steven Sinofsky made an apparently unintended comment during his Windows 8 presentation that got me thinking. He stated that, after seeing and using Windows 8, you would not want to go back to mouse and keyboard – and if you do, you will notice that your non-touchscreen will get fingerprints all over the place (because touch is what you really want to do.) If I understand this right, then every touchscreen will end up with fingerprints on the screen, which is especially nasty if a screen is used by many users, some of who may have forgotten to wash their hands after lunch (or worse). Touchscreens have a fingerprint problem that may be much more serious than it is with keyboards.
We already know that the computer keyboard is the unhealthiest place in your home as far as germ count is concerned. Those germs may now live on your touchscreen, and thanks to those shiny glass surfaces, you can even see those greasy fingerprints. The industry clearly has some work to do to remedy this problem, as there are people who have concerns of hygiene when using touchscreens.
I will close this article with a note from a friend, who is involved in developing touch-apps. He has been involved in this for several years, and I would lie if I were to say that he is particularly excited about it. I have the impression that the initial passion has been replaced with realism. His thought is that adults will simply not adopt touch if they are not forced to and if the form factor of the hardware as well as the ecosystem are perfectly orchestrated. He is convinced that non-iPad tablets as we are seeing them introduced today are devices that target our children and their computing needs down the road. He considers tablets as learning devices for a new generation of computer users. He may be right or wrong with this assumption, but it is clearly an interesting thought, and there is no doubt that tablets, even the iPad, are much more appealing on a greater scale to our kids than to our adult general computing needs.
Touch isn't a slam dunk for Microsoft. Even if Windows 8 isn't the first touch platform and we have had time to get used to it, Microsoft will have to get the hardware right as well – or instruct other hardware manufacturers to get the hardware built properly. I am not sure how Microsoft will organize the Windows 8 certification process for touch devices, which could be a big mess. If you ask me, Microsoft has a big opportunity. I am grateful that innovation is back, even if it is merely following an existing trend; however, Microsoft has to keep tight control to make this a success.