Microsoft Is Right About Touchscreen Computers

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I miss my touchscreen computer. Trapped in my house, thanks to Hurricane Sandy's dismantling of the NYC transit system, miles away from the Microsoft Surface tablet I've been testing, I’m reduced to poking at an unresponsive Windows 8 Ultrabook screen and left wondering why every single computer doesn't include a touchscreen. Spend enough time with the Windows RT-running Surface or any of the myriad Windows 8 computers arriving over the next few weeks and you’ll realize that the end of dead-screen computers is upon us.

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Two-Faced Interface Now Makes Sense

When I wrote about Windows 8 over a year ago, I was unconvinced that the interface formerly known as “Metro” and traditional Windows Desktop could exist side-by-side. The difference was -- and remains -- stark. Back then Windows 8 still had a Start Button. It was a rudimentary shadow of the robust Windows 7 version. Now, that Start button is gone. Or is it?

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One of the things I was slow to realize is that Metro (Windows design interface) is the Start button, just an exploded view of it. So it turns from a constricted pop-up window that disappears as soon as you click off or mouse away from it into an immersive environment. It’s still one giant, boundless Start button, but with a lot more relevant and real-time information on the surface.

Just like the old one, it has all your applications (Metro, I mean, Windows design-style and traditional desktop apps), Search, file access. It’s all there, but instead of diving in and out of expandable sub menus, it’s laid out and navigable. This, obviously, is a perfect design for a touch interface. Use your finger to swipe the tiles this way and that, pinch to zoom way out so you can see all the live Tile boxes.

It’s also a winner for a mouse-driven interface. As I mentioned in my review of Microsoft Surface, there really is no difference between Windows RT and Windows 8, aside from the fact that you can’t run legacy Windows apps on RT (which only runs on ARM-based systems). As a result, I get virtually the same design and user-interface experience on, say, an Asus Ultrabook, as I do on the Surface.

The Asus does not have a touchscreen and, though I sorely miss it, I can use many of the same tricks as I did on the Surface to move about the Windows 8 system. The corners are hot, so instead of touching with my finger, I just move the mouse there. The upper left corner is to running tasks and switch between them; the lower corner, where the Start Button once resided, is to access the Metro or “Start” interface. The right side is the Charms bar, which I access by moving my mouse to the right and dragging it quickly down along the screen edge.

Yup, it all works, but when I used it with the Surface and tried it out on myriad touchscreen laptops, it was even better.

Some who read my Surface review criticized me for spending so much time with the tablet connected to its Touch Cover keyboard and blue-tooth mouse. I spent an equal amount of time on it without either of those devices, but I have to admit, I loved using it in the former mode.

I know this is hard to believe, but it was completely natural for me to switch back and forth between the keyboard, mouse and touching the screen with my fingers.

The Argument

Steve Jobs once argued that’s it completely unnatural to touch the screen on a PC. He reportedly said people's arms would fatigue and called the idea “ergonomically horrible.” He actually argued that the touchscreen was meant to be horizontal not vertical. This might make some sense if you're talking about a touchscreen on, say, a more traditional desktop or maybe an All-in-One. Yeah, that might get a bit tiresome, lifting your arm up to almost eye level to control the screen. But most people aren’t buying desktops or even All-in-Ones any more.

At the recent Windows 8 launch event, there were no traditional PC Boxes, a handful of All-in-Ones and dozens and dozens of touchscreen laptops, convertibles and tablets. The latter few categories are used on your lap, at a table and are generally on-the-go devices that sit much closer to the user. No tiring arm extending going on here.

The idea that the man who popularized touch control on the revolutionary iPhone and iPad rejected the same natural interface for "vertical" screens never really made any sense to me. Jobs, however, often said one thing and did another. He actually once said Apple had no plans to build a tablet or a phone.

If Jobs truly believed touchscreen computers and laptops were a bad idea, I think he was also ignoring the fact that people like touching their screens. Even before we could control our interfaces with touch, the average CRT monitor and LCD display were covered in fingerprints. People point, touch and tap screens; it’s simply our way of drawing attention to something.

I Want to Touch It

I grew so accustomed to touching the screen while working with the Surface tablet that it ruined the Windows 8 experience for me on my Asus Ultrabook. I would type and mouse for a while, then touch the screen, smiling sadly when nothing happened. Even more startling, I learned Microsoft’s Windows gesture metaphors so well that I absentmindedly tried to use them on my Apple iPad. I kept trying to change tasks by sweeping my fingers from the left side of the screen.

I used to think Microsoft had made a dangerous left turn by killing the Start button, introducing a dual-screen interface and then spiting OEMs by building its own Surface tablet. Now it’s clear to me that Microsoft is not dangerously out of step. It’s finally leading the way, building the future of our touch-computing existence.

What do you think? Are you ready for a touchscreen computer or is that mode of digital interaction for tablets and smart phones alone? Let me know in the comments.

Microsoft Surface Powered Up

This is the Surface tablet with Touch Cover in place.

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This story originally published on Mashable here.

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