The Flaw in Microsoft’s Windows 8 Logic

At the very least, Microsoft should have provided a more gradual path to touch by introducing it first as an alternative form of input.

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Jared Newman for TIME

One of the more important assumptions in Microsoft’s design of Windows 8 comes from the company’s observations of how people used touch on smartphones and tablets. Microsoft clearly understood that touch was a key way people interacted with the screens on their various mobile devices.

However, the reason people adapted to touch so fast is that on smartphones and tablets, the finger is the best option for navigating content on a small screen. There is no room for a trackpad or mouse on these products, and touch input was deemed the best form of navigation at the time. Of course, user interfaces on small screens are bound to someday include more use of voice and gestures, but touch will still be the main form of input and navigation on these smaller-screen personal computers for many years.

On the other hand, PCs and laptops have bigger screens and have used keyboards, mice and trackpads as input devices for most of their existence. It appears that Microsoft’s logic for Windows 8 has been that if touch is good for smartphones and tablets, it must be good for PCs and laptops, too. However, in our current research with PC and laptop users, we are sensing that this type of thinking, at least for traditional desktop PC and laptop users, is flawed.

For one thing, most PC users over 16 have been trained to use keyboards, mice and trackpads and are very comfortable with these forms of input. Nobody in our research has said, “Boy, I sure wish I could touch my PC or laptop screen to get things done.” Their use of keyboards, mice and trackpads has become second nature to them. Adding touch means that they must learn a new form of input.

While adding touch input to screens is not a bad thing, people being able to adapt quickly to touch as a primary form of user interface input on larger PCs does not happen overnight. At the very least, Microsoft should have provided a more gradual path to touch by introducing it first as an alternative form of input.

That means that instead of pushing for more vendors to put touch-based screens on their PCs and laptops, which added a significant cost to these products last year, there should have been more time spent making trackpads more touch friendly and getting people used to pinching, zooming and using other touch-based gestures on these trackpads first.

Apple has done this with its Magic Trackpad, an accessory for its line of desktop computers. Key gestures like pinching, zooming, and moving windows from side to side are hallmarks of the Magic Trackpad. In fact, the Magic Trackpad’s gestures mimic the same gestures found on the iPhone and iPads, without requiring Apple to add touchscreens to its desktops and laptops.

Early on, Apple’s scientists studied the kinesiology of arm movements in relationship to keyboards and mice, and concluded that implementing any gestures into the user interface worked best through a trackpad. The company also determined that picking the hand up from the keyboard area and moving it to touch the screen was unnatural, and factored that into the final decision to add gestures to the Magic Trackpad instead.

Another thing we keep hearing is that touch is not great for precise cursor positioning, especially in spreadsheets, desktop publishing documents and any other application where pinpoint cursor control is key to the program. This is one of the major reasons we are not seeing any serious demand for touch-based laptops or PCs from IT departments; Windows 8 with touch is just not a priority for them at the moment. This could change as new PCs and laptops with Windows 8 move into IT channels through the upgrade process, but even then, touch as a user interface may not be important to them. One of the more interesting things we have observed when a touch-based system has gone into IT and SMB segments is that the attach rate for a mouse goes up exponentially.

So why did Microsoft rush a new user interface to the PC market if the folks using PCs were happy with the interface they already had? And why did Microsoft not concentrate on a gradual introduction to touch via some sort of smart trackpad first that could ease people into a touch interface that they had not been asking for?

The answer to the first question lies in Microsoft’s desire to differentiate and, to an extent, leapfrog Apple and Samsung by making touch central to the future of PCs. I suspect that Microsoft not only wanted to use touch as a differentiator, but to one-up the competition and try to resume a leadership position in operating system software in the desktop and laptop world.

The answer to the second question is harder to deduce, but from what I have heard from the OEMs, Microsoft was so enamored with the idea of a new, groundbreaking, touchscreen-based operating system interface that the idea of enhancing trackpads with gestures was an afterthought. I have heard that the trackpad makers lobbied hard to get Microsoft to pay attention to what Apple had done with the Magic Trackpad, and to be serious about locking down gesture specifications for trackpad manufacturers early on in Windows 8’s development. If what I hear from vendors is correct, any trackpad specifications that would mimic touchscreen gestures came well after the official launch of Windows 8 last October.

At Microsoft’s recent developers conference, the unnatural aspect of touching a screen was very clear from watching how thousands of people were trying to use their Surface Pros and laptops with Windows 8 on them. If they were sitting up in their chair and needed to touch the screen, they had to physically move forward to do it. They would then sit back and type. And, again, if they had to touch the screen, they had to do what we jokingly refer to as bowing to it.

But those with laptops featuring trackpads that were used as primary input devices sat straight up in their chairs and nonchalantly worked with no interruption in body movements at all. This is one reason that I really have trouble with the Windows 8 touch-based laptops I use; I touch the screen only sparingly while continuing to use the trackpad for most of my actual interface navigation.

There is a new product just coming to market that embraces gestures but still allows a person to remain upright and keep working in a natural way. It is coming from Leap Motion, a well-funded startup based in San Francisco. Leap Motion provides a small controller that connects to your USB port and can interpret your gesture motions to let you manipulate 3D objects, wave at the screen to advance Windows 8 tile pages and even draw using your fingers, all while still sitting upright. You don’t have to lean forward to use the touchscreen itself to navigate the operating system and its apps.

People had been telling me about this product ever since it won the Breakout Digital Trend prize at the SXSW Interactive festival this March. I finally got to see a demo in person and am highly intrigued with this product. It introduces a new and yet highly natural way to integrate a form of touch without having to actually lean forward and touch a screen to do so. It works very well and on Windows 8, it is a breath of fresh air when it comes to making gestures work well as part of the interface. The $80 device will begin shipping at the end of this month. Check out the video demo below:


A related question is whether Apple will ever bring touchscreens to MacBooks and iMacs. I really doubt it.

The company’s human factors team is one of the best in the world, and their study of the kinesiology behind the motions used to navigate laptops and PCs drives their position on this. If Apple were to add a touchscreen to any laptop-like product, it would probably come through some type of hybrid or convertible that works like a MacBook when the screen is attached and like an iPad when it is in tablet mode. There have been rumors that Apple is doing something like this, but as of now, they’re still rumors.

Over time, as cheaper versions of laptops with touchscreens and Windows 8 on them hit the market, the touch interface will just become an optional way that people interact with their PCs and desktops. However, I believe that the uptake in Windows 8 would have been much better if Microsoft had provided a more gradual evolution of touch first through smart trackpads, especially on the low-end laptops and PCs without touchscreens. But to force Windows 8 on all PC users was flawed logic, and it cost Microsoft and its partners dearly by way of reduced demand for PCs at a time when tablets are already putting pressure on PC demand. And it may be years before IT buyers move to Windows 8.

At the moment, Windows 8 adoption has a lot of challenges ahead when it comes to gaining serious traction with business users and most consumers. It will be interesting to watch how these choppy waters are navigated over the next few years and to see if Windows 8 will become the big hit Microsoft and its partners hoped it will be.

Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to Big Picture, an opinion column that appears every Monday on TIME Tech.