Microsoft and Touch

As an attendee of Microsoft’s 2009 PDC conference I received a free Acer laptop with a touch screen that swivels around so instead of using it like a “clamshell” type laptop, you can also use it like a big thick clipboard, writing and tapping on the screen to accomplish your tasks. I appreciated this gesture from Microsoft. They are really trying very hard to shed the poor image they earned themselves over recent years. I haven’t had a Windows machine in the house for a number of years now. While I don’t need one, there are a couple of things I can think of to use it for.

The first thing I wanted to play around with was the touch functionality. Not only can you use your finger to point at things, but it also comes with a stylus. Microsoft has been a huge proponent of “digital ink” – that is, using a pen-like device to write on the screen. They’ve been pushing this for years. It’s never really taken off in the consumer market, however.

So, knowing that I’m grateful for the laptop and that I’m commenting on their touch functionality ONLY and not the laptop specifically, here’s what I think.

As far as the consumer is concerned, Microsoft’s progress on the touch interface over the last several years has been virtually zero. You’ve likely seen the commercials about Windows 7 and the new touch screen computers you can buy from the big vendors. So while there’s more hardware support these days than there was a couple of years ago, as a user I don’t find any meaningful advances from Microsoft’s last six years in this area.

I’m sure that there are lots of things Microsoft will say to try to get you to believe they’ve revolutionized touch on the laptop and desktop computer, but I’m just not seeing it when it comes to Windows usability. Sure, custom restaurant point of sale systems can (and do) benefit from the touch interface. But I’m not using those. I’m using Windows. And as for touch being a user interface for Windows, Microsoft is still a long, long way off.

Take, for example, my new laptop’s ability to swivel the screen around 180 degrees so I can hold it like a clipboard and use the stylus. Well here’s the problem with that: when I hold it, my fingers wrap around the case and touch the screen, which totally screws up what Windows thinks my input is. I’ve tried to hold the thing differently, but I don’t want to drop it. I’ve also tried putting it down on the desk, but one of the things they haven’t accounted for is the fact that most people put their hand on their desk when they write on a piece of paper. Think about it. When was the last time you wrote a note to somebody while keeping your writing hand OFF the table?

So rather than embrace writing, which is something almost everyone in the world does, what they’ve done is to force everyone to adapt the way they write in order to use digital ink. That strikes me as the complete opposite of how one would approach this. Can people re-learn how to write using Microsoft’s solution? Probably. Should they have to? No, I don’t think so. My opinion is that people should use things in a natural way. In other words, features aren’t features at all if people can’t (or don’t want to) use them.

Next, I wanted to talk about the onscreen keyboard that you can opt to use when the laptop is in “tablet” mode. For some reason that completely escapes me, they’ve implemented this as a “tap one key at a time with the stylus” feature. What were they thinking? They simply moved “hunt and peck” to the touch screen. I tried typing on it, but it failed miserably because it’s not designed to accept more than one key every second or so. In addition, there isn’t any kind of logic involved with regard to typing with your fingers. For example, if I type the letter “q”, it naturally follows (based on the English language, in my case) that “u” is a likely follow-up. Unfortunately Microsoft didn’t take these kinds of things in to account. So I could type “qiestion” (over the course of 7 seconds or so) and Windows 7 does nothing at all to make logic out of that. In Word, it might highlight that as a spelling error, but it doesn’t preemptively correct these mistakes.

The kicker is, there are already companies that do this. You don’t have to press the “BKSP” key to correct what you’ve done because if you just keep typing it will determine the work you had in mind.

“Speak and Spell” or “Tonka” level is what comes to mind when I think about Microsoft’s touch functionality. These were toys when I was a kid, for those who don’t know. 🙂

So there it is. A couple of my opinions about Microsoft’s touch work. I welcome comments, particularly those that tell me I’m wrong and if I just flip a switch everything works fine.

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