Windows 7’s touch-screen features may not grab office users

microsoft_touch_screen.jpgIt was a relief to hear Microsoft execs say that touch-screen computing, which they demonstrated as part of a sneak peek of Windows 7 this week, will be an alternative to keyboards and mice. Because when you try to replace them, it just doesn’t work.

I say this after a recent evening spent trying to help my wife register for her baby shower at Sears. We only had a few minutes before the store closed, but the salesperson insisted it would be better if we set up our account ourselves, via their handy-dandy kiosk. We duly stood before a screen which had an image of a keyboard on it, and tried to walk through the seven or eight necessary steps to start registering. Each time we tried to press the “keys,” however, we often found our fingers connected with the wrong letters, and the melodic sounds it made with each point of contact led me to wonder if this kind of interface would be better for our future child than ourselves.

In the video of the Windows 7 posted on Microsoft’s Vista Team Blog, however, the experience looks a lot more smooth. It shows a pair of human hands gliding effortlessly over a laptop screen resizing or moving around photos, scrolling through a digital map and even tapping out a tune on an image of piano keys. As a way of priming the market, it’s a nice little performance.

Consider, however, the idea of introducing such an interface to Windows users, who have shown such a resistance to change in connection with their operating system that thousands have signed petitions to save the XP version. In fact, navigation and unfamiliarity with the UI are among the biggest complaints surrounding Vista. Is this really a road Microsoft is prepared to walk down?

The other knock against touch-screen Windows is the relative failure of tablet computing, which would have been a natural hardware platform on which to run such capabilities. Despite some truly ingenious designs by OEMs, these devices have failed to grab much market share, and they’ve done nothing to displace laptops as the mobile computer of choice. For a device without a keyboard, the argument for multi-touch becomes easier, but asking users to choose between two different UIs is more complicated than it’s worth.

As it stands now, the touch-screen capabilities of Windows 7 seems strictly confined to fun, consumer types of activities. For a business audience – where Microsoft and desktop vendors could really use a lift – the applications aren’t obvious. One interesting concept might be a way for users to rearrange by hand the menus of the programs they use every day. Think of a dashboard, for example, where you could shove up the sales leads above the “orders received” area. Imagine a content management tool that synched with Windows 7 which allowed you to manipulate elements of a Web site, or a database that displayed results and imput field according to where you dragged them.

It would be a mistake to write off Windows 7’s touch-screen capabilities before the product ever emerges, but Microsoft will have to do more thinking about why people will move to this kind of interface. I don’t know how long that might take, but I’m sure eventually someone will put their finger on it.

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