See Me, Feel Me... Touch Me?

We're just a few weeks away from the formal launch of Windows 7 and I've been using the final build for some time now. It's very nice and I'm sure most of you have seen it, used it or read about it to death. What I want to talk about over the next few weeks is various parts of Windows 7. One of the most intriguing parts of the new OS that Microsoft has talked about for some time has been the integration of touch features. While vendors such as HP have done their own touch implementations in the past (HP has gone as far as to offer their own touch-based SDK for developers) this is the first time since Microsoft unveiled their touch platform offering, Surface, that we've seen the OS vendor incorporate true finger-touch features directly into the OS.

To better understand touch in Windows 7, I borrowed the latest version of the Lenovo X200 which is not only pen based but supports two finger multi touch as well. The ThinkPad itself is top notch and perhaps I'll discuss it some more another day. After a week's use, what has me scratching my head is touch and how it's integrated into the OS. As it's touch certified, Microsoft adds in their Windows 7 "touch pack" which includes a photo organizer, a few games and a screen saver. Other applications are touch enabled in the sense that you can use your finger as a mouse. On the whole, I find the experience at the moment far more gratuitous than useful but at the same time, it shows great potential for what the future might look like.

Yes, multi-touch and the Surface brand are things for MSFT to be proud of, but they feel gratuitous to me in Windows 7. Operating systems such as Windows, Mac OS and Linux were optimized to work with a mouse and keyboard. The UI, affordances and overall experience work best in that combination. Tried to use Windows or Mac with just a keyboard? It can be done but it's hardly a pleasant experience. By contrast, Microsoft Surface or the iPhone were both designed from the ground up to interact with your fingers. Trying to use a mouse or even a pen with an iPhone would also be an experience in frustration. (Even Apple only offers limited touch capability on trackpads in Mac OS, rather than attempt to create a touch based UI for Mac OS.)

Using Windows 7 natively to navigate with just fingers was a frustrating experience. Targets such as menus, close and zoom boxes, and jump lists are simply too small to effectively hit with any accuracy. In slate mode the X200 was fine for basic navigation; in portrait mode, however, my hand grew tired pretty quickly trying to navigate on screen. On the other hand, the touch-pack apps were wonderful. The photo organizer made it a snap to flick pictures on screen, rotate and re-size them. Unfortunately, that's about all it could do. The games and screensaver are also cool but hardly a real value-add.

Microsoft was smart to show off multi-touch capabilities, which have now become so closely identified with Apple that people forget Microsoft's had efforts in touch based computing that pre-date the iPhone introduction. (I personally saw Microsoft's multi-touch efforts long before Apple showed their stuff in public.) I like that Microsoft has gone through the effort of branding all their touch applications with the Surface brand to reinforce the company commitment to this new UI. What I wanted was more than what's here at the moment, though. Like Microsoft's pen efforts, touch feels grafted on to Windows as an afterthought.

I hope Microsoft gets serious about touch for end users beyond the Surface hardware they're offering at the moment. I'd love a touch evangelist who would have the mission to get some really useful applications created that could take advantage of a new paradigm in computing. Heck, I'd love to see a home version of Surface that could perform a multitude of tasks. But for now, touch is more gimmick than useful feature and OEMs that implement it are going have to work hard to create their own value-add before users are likely to put their fingers on their machines.