All Windows 8 PCs Will Have 5-Fingered Touch

Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), the world’s largest operating system maker, after hearing years of comments on how we are living in a “post-PC” era in which users are using their smartphones and tablets more than their PCs (supposedly) made one of the most ambitious moves in its history with its upcoming Windows 8 operating system.  Microsoft decided to use touch to drive its interface.

I. Windows 8 Touch — Not the Mayan Apocalypse (Though People Think it is)

Touch is a very threatening prospect to many users as they fear that Microsoft will under-deliver experience-wise for traditional mouse-and-keyboard systems.  In a recent official Windows Team blog on touch progress, many of the comments were complaints griping about lacking experience for traditional non-touch input hardware.

Writes “pffft”, “how about a more mouse friendly ui and you change the name from WINDOWS to WINDOW because you can only view one at a time…..that works really great.”

Windows President Steven Sinofsky thus far has dodged these questions.  While he noticeably answered some other minor questions in the comments section, he refused to address the criticism surrounding non-touch hardware experience, thus far.  But you can be he’s listening.

This is the huge elephant in the room and it’s hard to even begin a discussion on Windows 8 touch without first putting it out there and putting things in perspective.

There are a few things, however, that everyone should keep in mind:

  1. The beta (Consumer Preview) is meant to test emerging features.

    Microsoft already has tried and true traditional input in Windows 7.  While Windows 8 will likely be a bit faster for such systems and pack some nice improvements to the system utilities, the key new I/O feature is touch.  So it makes sense that the Consumer Preview would fixate on touch.

  2. Multi-touch + keyboard + mouse is the future of I/O.

    The reaction to touch is similar to the reaction to the mouse in the 1980s, when most consumers most experienced them.  Many users thought that you should only need a keyboard to control your system and were angered at OSs that were built around the mouse.  The reaction to multi-touch is no different.  While arguably the addition of touch to the already rich mouse/keyboard I/O atmosphere offers the best experience yet, users will be upset at Microsoft for “wasting” time on innovation.  Someday when the next great I/O transitition comes along, these customers will likely be among the same to complain about “why can’t we just make Windows work on good old-fashioned multi-touch devices”.  You can’t stop progress.

  3. Oh great, my Windows 8 screen will be covered in fingerprints….

    Well, perhaps not — displaymakers are increasingly moving towards oleophobic (oil resistant) displays, such as the display found in Apple, Inc.’s (AAPL) recent iPhone model.  While this won’t prevent oil deposition, it makes smudge-free cleaning as simple as a swipe of a dry cloth (as the oil doesn’t adhere to the surface).

II. Windows 8 Focuses on 2-Finger Touch

Touch debate aside, Microsoft’s latest blog is all about touch. It outlines a fundamental gesture set, which is based on 2-finger gestures:
At first this may seem like a step back from Apple’s iOS, which incorporates up to five fingers in its core UI gestures.  But keep in mind that the majority of Apple’s gestures use two-finger touch.  

Those that do not (four/five finger swipe to switch apps, four/five finger pinch to go to home screen, four/five finger swipe up to open multi-tasking menu) largely are predicated on the lack of a taskbar.  In Windows your taskbar (the classic multi-tasking menu) is always there; you’re always on the homescreen.  Thus switching apps is never more than two simple clicks away, which is arguably more intuitive that a complex multi-finger gesture, followed by a click.  

Furthermore, Windows is designed for real work, thus the idea of using a multi-finger swipe up (essentially the equivalent of ALT+TAB) or a multi-finger swipe sideways (essentially the equivalent of WINDOWS+TAB) to switch between apps would be useless given the large number of apps currently open and the high degree of jumping between apps non-chronologically.  It makes sense in a tablet world, though, so Microsoft might consider adopting it in the long run for that niche.

III. Windows 8 Working on Windows 7 Touch hardware

The 2-finger requirement also allows Microsoft’s Windows 8 to work well on older Windows 7 touch hardware such as:

  • HP Elitebook 2760p convertible (Hewlett-Packard Comp. (HPQ))
  • ASUS EP121 tablet (ASUSTek Computer Inc. (TPE:2357)
  • Dell Inspiron Duo convertible (Dell, Inc. (DELL))
  • Lenovo x220t convertible (Lenovo Group, Ltd. (HKG:0992)
  • 3M M2256PW 22” display (3M Comp. (MMM))
  • Samsung Series 7 slate (Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (KS:005930))

Microsoft provides an interesting pie-chart that gives some idea about the relative rates of adoption of different kinds of touch devices in Windows 7 with respect to each other:
Interestingly, convertibles and all-in-ones dominate.  This just goes to show either how poorly pure Windows 7 tablets have done, and/or shows how much of a demand there is for convertible tablets.

In the blog Microsoft explains that older Windows 7 touch hardware lacks the extra detection needed to distinguish edge-swipe gestures, a critical part of the Metro UI.  In order to make them work it’s added a 20 pixel “buffer” to the corners of the screen — which will not be accessible to apps. On Windows 7 era tablets/laptops this could be a small but significant portion of the resolution, creating some unsightliness.

Otherwise, the key thing in using Windows 7 is to eliminate “jitter” — gesture confusion arising from poor detection.  Using some clever algorithms Microsoft was able to make the gestures reliable — with an average success rate of between 80 and 100 percent, based on its collected statistics.

IV. The Road Ahead

Bear in mind that while Microsoft is only using 2-finger touch in its core functionality, in order to provide Windows 7 backwards compatibility, apps can use up to five-finger touch — a requirement for new Windows 8 touch machines.  Thus Windows 7 touch devices will be able to fully use Windows 8, but not necessarily all of its apps.

According to Windows 8’s hardware requirements (see Digitizer entries), five-finger touch is a requirement for all Windows 8 machines.  Microsoft currently lists no exceptions to this requirement.

So reportedly any new Windows machine will now come equipped with touch for better or worse.  For more info on Microsoft’s specific device requirements, see here.

It will also pack a host of other improvements.  Most importantly, it blows Windows 7 away in speed and performance tests.  

Other perks include a developer-friendly 20-80 Microsoft-developer split for high-grossing apps, less painful Windows Update process, faster boots, decreased OS resource consumption, and improved file transfers, a streamlined upgrade process for the initial installation, and switching to a primarily online sales distribution model.

Users will have to adapt to the mouse, just they adapted going from horse reins to steering wheel or from mouse to mouse+keyboard.  Users may not like it, but Windows 8 is meant to touch.