Reach out and touch... your desktop?

Patrick Gray is intrigued by touch screen desktop computing, but he doesn't see a compelling scenario for this technology in the immediate future. Do you agree?

One aspect of Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8 operating system that I find extremely interesting is the promise to bring "touch" to desktop computing. This seems part of a recent trend to migrate aspects of the tablet experience to laptop and desktop computers. To the chagrin of many power users of Apple's OS X, its most recent incarnation has brought tablet-like elements to the desktop, from the increased use of gestures on the touchpad to applying the organizational metaphors of the iPad to the operating system.

Microsoft promises to push the envelope further, claiming that its Metro interface is designed to be a "touch first" platform that grudgingly supports the bygone notions of mouse and keyboard. I'm initially skeptical, despite having spent a few years poking and prodding my touch screen phone and tablet and finding the interface intuitive and efficient.

I've also been fascinated as I watch my son figure out the swipe and tap metaphors of the iPad at 15 months of age. Interestingly, when he first sat on my lap at my office desktop, his natural instinct was to poke at the screen as if it were an iPad, until he began to impersonate "daddy working" by mindlessly banging the keyboard and wildly gyrating the mouse. Despite the apparently natural process of touch computing, I still see the mouse and keyboard as far more efficient than reaching up to massage an awkwardly angled screen and then struggling to read text through a layer of fingertip-generated grease and miscellaneous funk.

Much of the efficiency of a phone or tablet-based touch interface comes in what amounts to content browsing and selection. Swiping through large photographs or punching a desired contact from a list of options (presented in appropriately large font) requires little dexterity, even for someone like myself, whose hands have barely evolved from our Paleolithic ancestors. Most tasks I reserve for the desktop seem to require more dexterity. The most frustratingly inept task on most touch screen devices is selecting, copying, and pasting text — something that's accomplished with ease on a desktop. Even creating this article would be exceptionally frustrating if three or four inaccurate pokes were required each time I needed to shuffle text around.

Like several other aspects of Windows 8, the ability to provide a hybrid model of computing seems very compelling. There is undoubtedly some benefit to swiping through web pages or manipulating photographs with my chubby fingers rather than using keyboard shortcuts  — all things that make for compelling marketing copy and commercials. However, lest the big names in computing forget, much of our time is spent with far less glorious tasks, from dragging around text to shuffling cells in a spreadsheet.

Perhaps several years from now, the mouse will be as quaint as the command prompt, which the average computer user invokes once or twice a year. Until that time, I'll keep an open mind. However, but in the immediate future, I don't see a compelling scenario for reaching out and touching my desktop or laptop.


Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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