Hardware

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.

About

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 ...

14 comments
lwph4851
lwph4851

I have an hp touch screen computer and I really don't use it. I had to turn off the touch screen last summer because I had the windows open at night and the screen attracted small gnats which landed on the screen and started closing windows and opening new windows and if you ried to kill them guess what happened? I think it's like 3D not ready for prime time. don't wast your money.

kevlar700
kevlar700

The Baanto touch can be configured to ignore certain size objects like sleeves and I must admit I had never thought about gnats, but them too. It's also made of toughened glass and can ignore chewing gum or long-term stationary objects and so is perfect for tables and also public areas. Touches will never replace keyboards on the desktop, not for many years anyway but they can certainly make you more productive and creative for many apps as an addition. Multi-user exhibiting and gaming, replace graphic tablets, music control in a dark area, with custom and explanatory buttons etc. etc.. Except when you come to a laptop and start pressing the screen wondering why nothing is happening, which kind of demonstrates the basic preference to touch until it comes to text entry of course. Email gc-techrep@intouch-tech.eu if you want any specs, pricing, cool videos etc..

Vulpinemac
Vulpinemac

Gesture based, at least for now, doesn't have the accuracy needed for precise control of a computer. It's great for certain types of games, but textual and even radio-button input requires far more accuracy that the Kinect offers at this time. I'm not saying it's a waste of time, only that it needs to learn how to follow a single given digit no matter what the other digits are doing. Current technologies require the user to wear some kind of 'reflective' device to accurately track those digits, which means some kind of glove or marker with different colors for each digit. On the other hand, touch offers an accuracy bested only by a light pen, which itself is limited to a single point of contact at a time. Granted, current systems are somewhat limited, but both Microsoft and Apple are proving that touch is the superior method and that it's only a matter of time before your desktop will be touch-only before it becomes gesture based. What is happening is that technology is leaving you behind, and if you can't look outside of your own, safe little cubicles, you're going to get caught out again and again.

Loggies
Loggies like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Touch is a niche market to make computers more idiot-friendly. It has its place depending on the application, but don't try to push it for an environment where it does not work and then slam the "resistance to change" myth onto everybody who uses their common sense and does not fall for the latest marketing gimmick. (myth ? yes. People don't resist change. They resist going backwards using change/progress as the excuse) I believe in evolution. If it works well, it wil be adopted where it makes sense. However, I hate being told by a marketer that I don't have a choice. GSG's post above makes sense: "...an easy to find checkbox called "Classic Mode". .." A mouse can't beat a correctly setup keyboard interface for efficient text input, but its exceptional when manipulating graphics. Touch have its uses (eg tablets and operators in restaurants and factories), but please don't punt it as the next BIG thing in the computer world. The bottom line is: Use the correct tool for the job. Don't try to shove somethin down the Joe Public's throat, just because its a new fad.

MikeChablis
MikeChablis

you are right that every technology has its place. I hear the apple fans saying that all computers will be touch tablets and try to imagine how the vast majority of computer users will use a touch tablet to do their job. A tablet is great for viewigng and reading but terrible for input. It is, therefore, a good device and UI for that user that is mostly surfing. It could be good, with a pen, for annotation type activities like a teacher would do, interacting with media and capturing that annotation. To suggest that everyone is shortsighted because they don't see that vision of touch being the answer to everything? That is just shortsighted. Oooohhhh the IRONY....(ala sideshow Mel on the simpsons). Vulpine tends to let his Apple bias get in way of logical thought, and since Apple led the charge on touch screen.....well it must be for everyone.

BillGates_z
BillGates_z like.author.displayName 1 Like

Small screens on portables get messy enough. I like to see what I'm working on without keeping a bottle of windex and a rag on my desk. Your hands don't have to be dirty to leave fingerprints and smudges.

elhudman
elhudman

Maybe it's because I started out keypunching my programs, but I feel limited and constrained by upright monitors, no matter how many or how big. Different people have different learning and working styles, though our computer systems have basically come in one flavor. I like to spread my work physically on a tabletop, to be able to shift my attention and make connections between things I can see and touch at the same time. I am so looking forward to a desk-sized computer table, maybe in a drafting-table style where I can survey and connect with everything I am working with. And I do still want a keyboard in addition to direct manipulation of screen objects.

GSG
GSG

How difficult it would be to use a touchscreen for hours at a time at your desk. While touch is neat, you cannot functionally use touch screens for very long unless you change the design. The monitor would have to be less vertical and angled for a more comfortable experience, but have the ability to go back to a standard monitor when a physical keyboard makes more sense. Plus, I run into an issue on my 10 inch tablet where my wrists will touch the screen. If you have a large touchscreen, you'll end up with some terribly sore arms and shoulders trying to hover over the touchscreen. I do not understand changing the look and functionality to something that caters more to the touch screen phenomena in the business world. Microsoft's niche is the business world. We have over 1000 employees at my organization, most of the employees are very casual users who don't have tablets and are not used to the touch interface. They have learned how to navigate through the current classic desktop and start menus to get where they need to go. Now, if we upgrade to this metro interface, we'll have to re-train over 1000 users on how to navigate. This is not cost effective by any stretch of the imagination. Going to a Linux desktop would be easier than trying to retrain users on Metro. Now, if Microsoft is smart, they will be reading the various articles that are out there and reading the various comments, and they will put a very simple solution in place... an easy to find checkbox called "Classic Mode".

kevlar700
kevlar700

Multi-touch small screens are capacitive and so require large buttons where single touch older phones didn't but the latest multi touch infra red technology just released by Baanto called ShadowSense allows buttons as small as 2mm and detects the size of the touch so you can even use a paint brush as if it was paper. The bezel is prohibitive at the moment for small devices but it is perfect for Desktops. If you are interested or want more information email gc-techrep@intouch-tech.eu that's gc-techrep at intouch-tech.eu

BALTHOR
BALTHOR like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

I suspect that you could even get touch to work with a vacuum tube display.I don't see why not.I even see audio coming from the display and the display would be microphonic.I don't like it that Windows 8 has all of this SDK stuff in it.I've never seen SDK work.

TNT
TNT

The touch interface is for tablets. Period. Kinect for PC will provide gesture-based and voice-based navigation to the PC, and Synaptics has developed a trackpad that can replace your screen for touch navigation (InterTouch). Since most PC's and laptops do not have touchscreens these other input methods are key to the success of Windows 8 and all other touch-based OSes in the near term. This will be as revolutionary as the mouse was when Xerox first introduced it.

beaverusiv
beaverusiv

I believe all those things are gimmicks, including touch. They might evolve into something better, but saying commands to a computer might seem cool, but I can type out the commands to do it waaay quicker and it doesn't require tonne of extra software.

bboyd
bboyd

Only useful when the programs are made to accommodate fumble fingers. Does help with the mobile use of the laptop. Becomes a crutch sometimes. I tend to put finger marks on other peoples screens because I'm used to it. It seems faster than using the touch pads on laptops but way slower than a bad mouse. I would say that keyboard--> 6d mouse-->normal 2d mouse are my three most productive interface devices. I use a space navigator 6d mouse for CAD work and combo that with a regular laser mouse. Doing programming and such the 6d has the rotation axis disabled and becomes zoom, horizontal and vertical scrolling. Still taking my hand/hands away from the keyboard is never good since the most information and control is there. The one place where touch screens are great from my use is on industrial control PC's. Using a simple interface and giving the operator just the info and control they need makes them much more practical, until greasy welding gloves poke them...

Magic_8_Ball
Magic_8_Ball

In my experience, I have seen health care operations and manufacturing use touch screens when keyboards will not fit or are too clumsy. However, this scenario is not the case in most office spaces. My first thought was that maybe Microsoft plans for a secondary command screen to replace the mouse and keyboard like the input devices used in the 1990s Star Trek shows (TNG, etc). That possibility does not seem to fit what Microsoft is designing for Windows 8, although it would work well in some network operations centers (NOCs). Instead, I think that the ???touch first??? platform is either preparation for a gesture based input or porting the operating system to a tablet. A gesture based input device would act much like a touch screen and give Microsoft a unique technology edge through the Kinect. On the other hand, the capabilities of tablet devices are improving so it is possible that the futurists at Microsoft believe that more people will be using a tablet for their main computing device and their software needs to be ready.