Touchscreens and the Myth of Windows 8 ‘Gorilla Arm’

I'll be surprised if you can buy a computer five years from now that doesn't have a touchscreen -- Apple products included.

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A lot has been said about Windows 8. Some of it positive, some of it negative. With all things Microsoft, we certainly need to give the company a version or two grace period. I’m not going to do a lengthy analysis of Windows 8 here but I’d like to make some points about the touch experience on new Windows 8 PCs and, more importantly, I’d like address a term that gets thrown around: Gorilla Arm.

Gorilla Arm is a term that has come about in reference to more traditional PC computing form factors, like desktops and notebooks, when such form factors have touch features that leave the user with tired arms from having to reach up and touch the screen for long periods of time. When I first heard about what Microsoft was doing, I as well had my doubts that consumers could have a pleasant experience with touchscreen-based notebooks and desktops. However, after working with several touchscreen notebooks, I can see the value of touch in all form factors that will run Windows 8.

Touch + Mouse + Keyboard

The first thing we need to understand about Windows 8 is what the touch paradigm means to the overall experience. Those who have brought up concerns about Gorilla Arm with touch-based Windows 8 machines may have assumed that the touch experience was more critical to the overall implementation than it actually is. In fact, I feel the best way to understand touch as it relates to Windows 8, is that it is more about navigation than input.

Although all Windows 8 notebooks and desktops support input devices like trackpads and mice, touch is an additional way to navigate programs, bring up useful menus and more. And in many cases I find the touch navigation to be quicker than a mouse or trackpad for things like swiping through open applications, changing settings, closing applications, scrolling through programs in the Windows 8 menu, and many more tasks that were once limited to a pointing device.

This does not mean that during my experience with Windows 8 I have been using touch only, but rather as a more convenient navigation mechanism for many simple things. Multi-touch trackpads, which are being implemented on many new notebooks and Ultrabooks, provide a sufficient experience on their own, but the addition of touch as an option I feel will not only be welcomed by users of Windows 8 but also may evolve into the preferred input mechanism for many navigation and other simple input tasks.

A good example of some use cases I have noticed with Windows 8 touch versus traditional mouse and keyboard input relates to the new Windows 8 user interface versus the traditional desktop user interface, both of which exist in Windows 8. From my own experience as well as some of the early observational studies we have done with consumers using Windows 8, it seems as though touch becomes the preferred input mechanism and fundamentally replaces the mouse for many while in the new interface mode seen below.


Yet when they get to the desktop side of the interface, which is similar to Windows 7, they go back to the mouse and keyboard combo. Much of this has to do with the way each user experience is architected from a software standpoint. Some call this a schizophrenic user experience, some just call it confusing, but the bottom line is that Windows 8 has a touch paradigm which I believe is useful, and a traditional mouse and keyboard interface for tasks requiring more precise input.

Better with Touch

With everything I am mentioning about touch on Windows 8, I have convinced myself that the absolute best Windows 8 experience includes a device with a touchscreen. This is not to say that Windows 8 is horrible on a notebook or desktop which does not include touch, simply that it is better with touch.

This presents an unfortunate two-part challenge for Microsoft, one immediate and one longer term. The immediate challenge is that the retail environment for these new touch and non-touch Windows 8 devices is a mess. Confusing is too nice of a word. When you walk into any major retailer to look at the latest lineup of Windows 8 products, in many cases, there is no telling which has touch and which doesn’t. In my opinion, much of the retail environment for new Windows 8 hardware does not allow for the full experience to be showcased. I have heard from those in the retail channels that this is going to get better. It absolutely has to — and quickly.

The second issue, which is much more longer term, is around the question of how quickly hardware manufacturers can get touchscreens into all their products in a timely fashion and at a more mainstream price point. From what I can gather at this point, we will be lucky if 50% of new hardware in the notebook and desktop segments features touch in 2013. The question remains as to whether or not we can bring mass market pricing to those products or not by the holidays next year.

It is way too early to call Windows 8 a failure, no matter what any of the pundits say. Whether or not it is the immediate answer to the slumping PC segment is an entirely different conversation. Regardless, Windows 8 will be on over 300 million machines by the end of next year if our current worldwide PC sales rate stays at the same rate it has for the past few years — which is likely.

We are at the early stages of a massive transition for Microsoft as a company. One where the need to reinvent itself is critical, as is the need to stay relevant in the computing industry’s growth categories: tablets and smartphones. Touch is a foundational element for Microsoft to embrace going forward. In fact, I’ll be surprised if you can buy a computer five years from now that doesn’t have a touchscreen — Apple products included.

Bajarin is a principal at Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to the Big Picture opinion column that appears here every week.