Bill Gates reveals new touchscreen UI planned for Windows 7.
Now you can finally give Windows the finger. Even two fingers, if the mood takes you. In the first public demo of Windows 7 during The Wall Street Journal’s annual D: All Things Digital Conference (aka D6), boy genius billionaire Bill Gates and monkey-dancing millionaire Steve Ballmer trotted out a ‘multi-touch’ UI slated for Windows 7.
Based on work done for Microsoft’s ‘surface computing’ concept as well as evolving Windows’ existing pen-centric tablet layer, the UI employs gestures and responses made familiar by Apple’s own work on the screen of the iPhone as well as the trackpad of the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro.
Tap with a finger to select an object, drag to move it or otherwise affect it – for example, a water-like surface responds by swirling and rippling. Squeeze out from an image to enlarge it or zoom in from a perspective, pinch to shrink or zoom out. Some applications included a ring-shaped control menu that appeared when the finger was held in one place for a second.
You can watch the D6 demo conducted by Windows 7 ‘User Experience’ chief Julie Larson-Green below. (If you freeze the video very early on you can see other touches of the nascent Windows 7 user interface: the ‘orb’ remains but the taskbar appears to be have orb-sized icons for applications, or possibly they’re live thumbnails of application windows, rather than tiny icons).
You can also check out a second clip prepared by Microsoft (don’t panic over the fact that there’s no sound coming from your PC, it’s a silent clip).
The demo immediately and predictably drew comparisons with similar technology offered on the screen of the iPhone as well as the trackpad of the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. Of course, Apple didn’t invent the touch UI – it just popularised it and drove it into the mainstream.
HP showcased its TouchSmart PC in 2007, which boasted a large 19in touch panel, and then built touchscreens with a deliciously simple wizard UI into several of its photo printers and all-in-one printers. And this writer recalls informal briefings with Toshiba around 2001 in which company spokespeople talked of research work being done on a ‘gesture-based UI’ for oversized touchpads and potentially touchscreens along broadly similar principles.
The touch UI will be positioned as an ancillary way to interact with a Windows 7 system, rather than a replacement for the keyboard and mouse. “You’ll use touch when it makes sense, use the mouse when it makes sense and use the keyboard when it makes sense” explained Larson-Green, who also confirmed that the UI would include an on-screen keyboard.
In order to get all touchy-feely with Windows 7 you’ll need a system with a touch-sensitive screen, which raises the question of how much support the PC builders will give to touch technology. On one hand, this certainly adds an appeal which helps spur upgrades; on the other is the added cost of a touch-aware screen, even for the cheapest ‘passive’ touchscreen technology used in PDAs.
We’ve yet to see more than a handful of laptops sporting the external ‘Auxiliary Display’ screen that Microsoft touted would show your next appointments, the subject lines of new emails, wireless signal strength, weather widgets, RSS news alerts and so on.
That also implies that Windows 7 in ‘touch mode’ will need a different UI compared to the traditional one developed for the keyboard and mouse, because of the different mechanics of using your fingers. This would be similar to the UI work done for Windows Media Centre, which is based on the ‘10 foot experience’ of sitting back on the lounge with a remote control rather than the ‘two-foot experience’ of being perching right in front of the PC with the keyboard/mouse combo.
Ballmer described the multitouch preview as “just a snippet” of Windows 7”, but it’s clear from Microsoft’s choice of snippet de jour that they want the Windows 7 ‘wow’ to start now, rather than in late 2009 or early 2010 when the OS finally arrives (and presumably with a new name to replace the ‘7.0’ version number – we’re still betting on Windows 2010).
So why put this particular technology under the spotlight? It wasn’t just about delivering great images and a bit of buzz for the mainstream media. This was intended to show that Microsoft still has a role as a technology innovator, which sounds ironic considering that Apple popularised touch – but Microsoft brings this to the large screen and hopefully the everyday computing experience. And while the real-world applications of a touchscreen desktop or laptop may be questionable, this demo was not about practicalities but perceptions, PR and perhaps the politics of Microsoft that’s largely been seen on the back foot, hurting from Vista and with figurehead Bill Gates soon to depart.
So let the Windows 7 hype begin!