Tech Watch: The Windows 8 touch interface could change the way we work

The Windows 8 touch interface promises to change the way we work, but businesses need to adopt new hardware and apps need to be developed first.

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TechWatch

In Windows 8, Microsoft has added touch interfaces to the world's most-used operating system. Is it a symbolic presence or representative of a larger transformation of how everyday work is done? Let's take a look at how the Windows 8 touch interface marks a change in the way some business gets done and what further evolution might be ahead.

How touch changes the way people work

Touch is a more natural way to work, using your fingers rather than devices, such as keyboards or mice, to interact. Touch doesn't require batteries, and you can't misplace fingers. Point to what you want, tap to select, pinch to zoom and expand -- it's just intuitive. Touch interfaces make devices more accessible in a variety of scenarios where a keyboard and mouse are at best impractical and at worst impossible.

Some IT industry observers say that the rapid spread of touch has ushered in the "Post-PC Era," as users go beyond enterprise desktops and laptops to devices that are highly mobile and extremely personalized. In fact, some tech experts are viscerally opposed to the keyboard.

"Post-PC devices are about your relationships and what's important to you in your personal life," writes Matthew Baxter-Reynolds, a consultant and writer based in the U.K. "The argument you hear is that keyboards are required to do 'proper work.' Yet the iPad has sold 34 million units since [its] introduction, netting $19 billion in revenue despite the fact ... I have never, ever seen anyone using an iPad with a keyboard in the wild."

It is clear that touch is here to stay, and it is inexorably altering the how users interact with computing devices. But how does Microsoft's late realization of this phenomenon affect technology?

How Windows 8 could change the way we work

Although Microsoft's Windows had been the dominant operating system for business, it took the company a while to recognize the fast-growing popularity of the iPad, a competitor that runs an innovative, touch-friendly OS. The creators of a Windows 8 touch interface faced a unique set of challenges.

More on Microsoft Windows 8 and touch:

How to add multi-touch to a Windows 8 desktop or notebook

Using desktop virtualization to emulate Windows 8's touch interface

User interface, device support will be key to Windows 8 adoption

End users stick with Windows 7, resist changes in Windows 8 touch

Microsoft needed to make evolutionary changes to its operating system rather than completely rewrite it. A new version of Windows couldn't be a complete break from the past, lest the software maker anger the business audience that has made Windows a juggernaut.

However, Microsoft also wanted to take advantage of devices like tablets and touch-enabled laptops. Windows 7 had rudimentary touch support, and the first Tablet PC wasn't a great success for the company. And so the two-world approach was born.

Windows 8 is divided into two worlds. The first is the conventional desktop workplace. The new world is the touch-friendly, Metro environment that runs locked-down, known Windows Store apps -- much like the iPad. In that environment, there are few worries of viruses or configuration difficulties; you just sit down and work. Microsoft's Surface is an attempt to combine a tablet interface with a Windows notebook's functionality.

For Windows 8 to be successful, Microsoft must port productivity applications to the Metro environment, complementing its subscription strategy for Office 365. Imagine never having to worry again about the following:

  • Closing an app by clicking the red "x" in the corner with a mouse;
  • Keeping antivirus software up to date;
  • Committing keyboard shortcuts to memory.

The Windows 8 touch capability, combined with the Metro environment, could be great for customer-facing situations. Tablets have also become common among consumers, workers and executives on the go.

The iPad has become commonplace in airports, but does Apple's device go far enough? Many traveling workers would surely love to be able to use lightweight versions of Word, Excel and Outlook over the limited applications that ship with the iPad or with Windows 8 out of the box.

There are plenty of games and utilities, but anyone wanting to get real work done in the Metro environment is right now set for disappointment. The Windows Store has few of the most popular productivity apps so far.

Aside from Lync and OneNote, there are no Office applications. The Mail, Calendar and People apps in Windows Metro have recently gotten modest upgrades. Until users can access full versions of the apps they need for day-to-day work, Windows 8 touch devices won't fully take off as competitors to the iPad.

Where will the Windows 8 touch interface lead?

Here are some observations on what the post-PC future may hold for Windows users:

  • More PCs are becoming touch-enabled. Combining Windows 8 touch gestures with the keyboard and mouse may result in a more natural, productive use of applications. There is utility in touch, even in the old world of desktop apps, although it is limited. New PCs, laptops and Windows tablets will make it easier to use the Windows 8 touch interface.
  • Touch computers are already changing three types of environments:
    • Customer-facing applications, such as retail kiosks, on-site support and mobile events;
    • Locations that serve many travelers, because touch is easier to use in a confined space, and portable, consumer devices are favored by workers on the go;
    • Educational institutions, where young students take more naturally to devices with touch interfaces versus those with a traditional keyboard and mouse.
  • At its best, the Windows 8 touch capability is a modest change in how business users can interact with their PCs. Many complaints about the need for user retraining have focused on learning to use Windows 8 on systems without touch. The Metro environment is promising, but too few applications exist to make a meaningful difference in how the vast majority of users work. As new productivity apps are developed to take advantage of touch, this will change.
  • Microsoft has the best chance of integrating touch into business users' lives. No other company has the reach and installed base to attempt to integrate touch into the applications users work with most often. Once people migrate to the Windows 8 touch interface, as it comes on new PCs, phones and tablets, the barriers to adoption will decrease.
This was first published in March 2013

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