There is a lot of hate for “touch” out there and I thought I’d talk about it a bit. I can tell when I’m reading an unreasonable discussion because there is always something about having to stand there all day with your arms stretched out to touch the screen. I stop reading when this is mentioned. Why would anyone stand there with their arms stretched out constantly? Microsoft certainly doesn’t require this, so anyone who makes that comment just isn’t paying attention. Or rather, is just trying to be difficult. Windows 8 was designed for multi-mode input. While the priority for the first release may indeed have been to get something truly touch-friendly out there, and make Windows viable in the tablet market, that’s the beginning not the end.
I am using Windows 8 on numerous machines, most of which don’t have touch screens! My Surface RT has a touch screen and I use the keyboard, track pad, and short-cut keys whenever the situation allows. But even when my Surface is being used more as a notebook than a tablet, I still reach up and touch the screen from time to time. Launching an app? I usually touch the screen. Need to share something? I usually touch the screen to bring up the Share Charm. Scroll through pages in an article? Yup, I usually touch the screen. Even touching links on a web page is often easier with the finger than with a touchpad-controlled mouse pointer (though this is not the case with a real mouse). But a lot of the time, such as when I’m writing blog entries or doing email, my fingers never leave the Type Cover. I find this mixed mode usage extremely natural.
My frustration with Windows 8 on most of the PCs I use is that they don’t have touch. And worse, they don’t have multi-touch and gesture-enabled pointing devices. I’ve played with the Logitech T650 touchpad and it makes the Windows 8 UI design much more palatable. I’ve noted the same thing when playing with newer non-touch notebooks in stores. If their touchpad supports the edge-swipe gestures and multi-touch then the Windows 8 UI is a pleasure to use. If they are just old-fashioned mouse simulators than you really notice the seams between the UI and your hardware. Microsoft did not optimize Windows 8′s user experience for older hardware, it supports them as a convenience to users. Microsoft optimized Windows 8 for new hardware, including things that haven’t yet come to market.
Even if you don’t like the idea of reaching out and touching your screen there are a lot of new things coming in terms of Natural UI that Windows 8 is simply a prep for. I’m surprised that Microsoft hasn’t yet released a next-generation Kinect specifically for controlling Windows devices, with native support in the OS and first-party apps as well (of course) with Windows RunTime support. But that will come. And then there is the Tobii REX, which I’d love to add to my existing non-touch PCs! In both cases we’re looking at new ways to control your PC. Ways that would be impractical with Windows XP, Windows 7, or WIMP in general. Why do I say that? Because they don’t have the precision that WIMP-based interfaces require. While Kinect enables completely new scenarios, both it and REX can be used to supplement (rather than replace) traditional keyboards and mice in classic “Desktop PC” scenarios.
Still looking for options? In the past we’ve seen examples of projection keyboards. Imagine a version that when you “touched” a function key it switched from projection of the keyboard to projection of the screen on the horizontal surface in front of you. And then let you manipulate the UI using touch and gestures on the projection. Once again this is far more feasible with Windows 8′s “Modern” or “Metro” than with classic WIMP.
Something less dramatic? Logitech almost has it right, almost. I want a mode where the touchpad functions more as a virtual overlay on the touchscreen and lets me touch things rather than mouse over them. I’d switch to “mouse” mode when editing documents or other higher-precision pointing activities, but stay in “touch” mode for most UI manipulation.
Microsoft is not saying that touch is the “be-all and end-all” of user interface, it is just making it and similar technologies first-class citizens. Are there tradeoffs involved in such a move? Of course. Some are short-term (e.g., one main window with one snapped window in Windows 8), some are long-term. But they aren’t abandoning the mouse and the need for precision pointing. Or the physical keyboard. And they aren’t insisting on a future where you have to stand there for hours with your arms stretched out in front of you.