Windows 8 and the touchy future of PCs

Touch on the desktop? That's the only way Metro makes sense. With Windows 8, Microsoft is making its biggest hardware demand ever

In my post last week, I asked for two simple changes to Windows 8: Allow users to uninstall Metro, and bring back the Start menu. The bottom line is that Metro is terrible with a mouse. It's a touch interface, period.

Of course, I tend to think of a touch interface as a way of interacting with a tablet or a smartphone. But as several readers observed, in my post last week I failed to cite the obvious: Part of the idea of Windows 8 is to move users toward a touchscreen interface for desktops and laptops. And a bunch of manufacturers have lined up to deliver just that.

[ Read "Windows 8 review: Yes, it's that bad" by InfoWorld's Woody Leonhard. | Download InfoWorld's Windows 8 Deep Dive special report, which explains Microsoft's new direction for Windows, the new Metro interface for tablet and desktop apps, the transition from Windows 7, and more. | Stay current on key Microsoft technologies in our Microsoft newsletter. ]

Now, I can't believe Microsoft really wants us to throw away the mouse -- once you get past Metro to the Windows desktop, you're much better off with a mouse than with a touchscreen. I guess we're supposed to use both. Anyhow, there are three new types of touchy PCs in the pipe designed to accommodate Windows 8:

  • All-in-one PCs with Windows 8 touchscreens. Windows touchscreen PCs, such as the HP TouchSmart line, have been around for a while but have never taken off. Windows 8 and its touch-centric Metro tile interface aim to change that. Pretty much every major PC manufacturer will be offering Windows 8 all-in-one touchscreen PCs.
  • Laptops with Windows 8 touchscreens. Touch will be part and parcel of Windows 8 laptops. We'll see a flood of Windows 8 ultrabooks this fall with touchscreens. That's a good thing, since you wouldn't want to use Metro any other way.
  • Convertible Windows 8 laptops/tablets. Several manufacturers have previewed Windows 8 laptops with touchscreens that fold back or detach so that you can use them as Metro tablets. When you think about it, a convertible may be the ideal device for an operating system with a dual personality.

Are people really going to want to reach out and touch their PC's screen? Well, on the plus side, tablets and smartphones have gotten us in that groove. If you can remember back to the first time you used a computer, you probably instinctively wanted to touch the screen to move the cursor. Touch couldn't be more intuitive.

The problem is that touching a vertical screen is weird. If you've ever propped up a tablet and used it like a laptop with a Bluetooth keyboard, you know that you have to lift your entire arm to touch the screen. This is fatiguing after a while and may have serious ergonomic implications. It's fine for kiosks, but not day in and day out.

Thinking about this problem gives me sympathy for the architects of Windows 8. Is touch a separate and distinct modality from using a keyboard and mouse? Well, not for tablet users -- everyone uses the soft keyboard on a tablet, and a few people even get productive work done with one. In the interest of creating a unified user experience across devices, Microsoft decided to go the other way and push Windows 8 PC users in a vertical touchscreen direction. (It must be so, or Microsoft would let you opt out of Metro.)

Windows 8 isn't just a huge bet for Microsoft. It's a bet placed by a big chunk of the PC industry, which has dutifully designed and previewed dozens of laptop and desktop touchscreen models.

What a wager. First, Microsoft and its partners must roll out a marketing blitz that persuades people Metro is a must-have, since it's the only obvious difference between Windows 8 and Windows 7. Then they need to convince people to buy new touchscreen-enabled hardware to make Metro usable.

All of this hinges on the assumption that users will warm to a vertical touchscreen orientation that's unproven at best. Now that's a touchy proposition.

This article, "Windows 8 and the touchy future of PCs," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Eric Knorr's Modernizing IT blog. And for the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

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