Ballmer: Touch-optimized means “big buttons”

Ballmer, you disappoint me again. Yes, you know how to crush competition. No, you don’t know your product or technology the way your predecessor does, as exemplified by you saying that touch optimization means “big buttons.” Yeah, because everyone raves about the iPad having big buttons.

Attending a briefing with the Big Ballmer, blogger and IT specialist Mark Wilson passes along this transcription of Big B’s response to a question about touch-enabled Windows 7 (hat tip to Mary-Jo Foley at ZDNet):

Yeah, what you’ll see over the course of the next year is us doing more and more work with our hardware partners creating hardware-software optimisations with Windows 7 and with Windows 7 Media Center [...] Media Center is big and, when people say ‘hey, we could optimise more for clients’ I think what they generally mean is ‘Big Buttons’. Big Buttons that’s, I think, a codeword for Big Buttons and Media Center is Big Buttons not Little Buttons. I’m not trying to trivialise that – it’s a real issue.

Yes, it is a real issue. No, “big buttons” is not the solution. (And yes, I think of something else when I hear “big buttons.”)

The problem with touch on Windows 7, and I continue to disagree with Brett on this, is that it reads round finger presses as pinpoint cursor clicks. When your finger touches an area, Windows reads it as a tiny cursor click. That unavoidably leads to accuracy problems

By contrast, iOS, Android, webOS, and every other touch-optimized OS reads finger presses as circular areas, more comparable to your actual fingertip surface. That’s why even my fat fingers can manipulate things on those tiny screens. When my finger engulfs a button, it registers as me pressing that button, just like a physical button. By contrast, on a Windows touchscreen PC, that same situation could register the touch outside the button. Hence, making buttons bigger than fingertips could address this symptom, but it doesn’t fix the underlying problem. Furthermore, you can’t “big button” the Internet.

The real headshaker here is Ballmer actually says he thinks big buttons equals touch optimization. People can zip through standard web pages with tiny text links on handheld devices. How does he look at them using their fingers on those small screens and think the answer is big buttons? That approach works for application launchers, but once you get into an application, then what happens? You can’t “big button” every Windows application.

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He’s not helping himself with the comparison to Windows Media Center either. WMC is based on a ten-foot interface. It’s supposed to be manipulated from a distance. It’s designed to work with a button-filled TV-like remote control. By contrast, touch is up-close and free of hard buttons. Granted, they have a lot of UI elements in common, but that’s due to a shared focus on simplicity. On the surface, they look similar, but the design intentions are actually quite opposed.

I do use a Wacom Graphire pen tablet to control my Windows Media Center PC, and I’ve noted how WMC can be more touch-friendly. However, my ideas are based on using multi-touch gestures, not buttons. Slide two fingers up or down anywhere for volume control. Two-finger swipe right or left to skip forward and back, and swipe-and-hold for extended skip. No buttons, just gestures. WMC has good touch control, and it could be great, but big buttons are not a part of that.

Ballmer did say one thing to give me hope:

We’re doing work with the OEMs to make sure that they treat ink also as a first class citizen.

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Yep, in a surprise to me, Ballmer has not forgotten about ink and says they’re working to make sure it does not get overlooked in the stampede towards touch. At least on the OEM side. No mention of what they’ll do to raise it from second-class status in Windows. Personally, I use ink to make a lot of buttons, big or small, unnecessary (which is why my tablet interface is mostly icon-free thanks to ritePen).

Comments

  1. Bill Zilla says

    I think it’s possible that Ballmer was just being glib with the “big buttons” comment, although I agree he definitely needs to be more careful than that. I’m glad you noticed his shout-out to Ink, which I consider far, far more important than touch control (but I use my tablet almost exclusively for drawing). I do agree that MS needs to wake up in regards to touch if they’re ever going to grab some of that sweet, sweet marketshare.

  2. aftermath says

    “The problem with touch on Windows 7…is that it reads round finger presses as pinpoint cursor clicks. When your finger touches an area, Windows reads it as a tiny cursor click. That unavoidably leads to accuracy problems”

    Too vague. My guess is that you’re reviewing yourself and not the operating system. Few people really understand one of the central issues here, and I have to give Brad Linder a lot of credit for what I understand about the subject.

    The DPI of the interface within Windows 7 NEEDS (for most people) to be set to the PPI of the LCD to get the best possible touch experience in Windows 7 (for most people).

    As DPI goes down, you have fewer pixels representing each graphical element. For an LCD of fixed resolution, this has the effect of graphical elements appearing smaller on screen, which also means that you can fit more of them on screen (what some people call “screen real estate”). As DPI goes up, you have more pixels representing each graphical element. For an LCD of fixed resolution, this has the effect of these graphical elements appearing larger on screen, which also means that you can fit fewer of them on screen (although they appear sharper and clearer because they’re composed of more pixels).

    The default DPI in windows is 96. A 12.1 inch LCD panel with a 1280×800 resolution has a PPI of 124.75. With the default DPI of 96, this LCD is basically displaying elements at roughly 80% of their “natural size” (according to the OS). The OS is trying to represent an inch worth of information with 96 pixels, which only takes up about 80% of the 124.75 pixels that go into an inch on the screen. That’s not the fault of the OS. That’s the fault of the user settings.

    If you’re running Windows 7 in a traditional desktop usage scenario, then accept the lower DPI and enjoy the increased screen real estate. For most of us, our eyes can compensate for the smaller graphical elements, and the boost in the size of the workspace is well worth the trade off. However, our fingers aren’t nearly as good as making the adjustment. If you’re going to run Windows 7 in a pure tablet, finger-inclusive way, then boost the DPI of Windows 7 to match the PPI of your screen. Otherwise, you’re making yourself aim at things smaller than even Windows 7 thinks they should be. If you decide to do that, then don’t go whining about how Windows 7 is not touch friendly.

      • aftermath says

        No. Specifically not “big buttons”.

        I’m going to assume for a moment that you have a linguistic sophistication that’s sensitive to the difference between “good”, “better”, and “just right”. “Good” means “good”. It’s a fairly absolute and autonomous descriptor. “Better” means “more good than something else”, but in no way implies that the thing is good. Having your arms chopped off is better than having your head blown off, but it’s not very good. “Just right” means that something is exactly what it should be. It’s not as autonomous as “good” because it’s tied to a specific context and supersedes in precedence concepts like good and bad.

        To that end, it’s not about “big buttons”. If you wanted to be as terse but more clever then you could have gone with “bigger buttons”. However, if you were most excited about being correct you would have said “right sized buttons”. Certainly, the means to this end is to make them bigger, but if you’re making them bigger in order to get them up to the right size than they’re not “big”. That would be like calling somebody who packed on a few extra pounds to get up to an idea body weight “fat”. Anybody who’d say such a thing would be breaching logic in the spirit of jest or bullying. I just don’t get how the need to have graphical elements displayed on screen at the EXACT size in which they were designed at all accurately implies “big buttons”, but I’ve never been the smartest guy in the room even once in my life (even when I’m all alone).

        Moreover, it’s not just about buttons. It’s about every graphical element, whether it’s an interface control or just a displayed item. A landscape riddled with comically large buttons doesn’t work. The entire interface needs to be correctly scaled in order for the interface to make sense and retain its consistency, and the scaling should be to the level of design.

        Something tells me that, despite the fact you and I are both long time tablet guys and one of us is not an MVP, you’ve neither ever set your tablet up in this way (before today) nor did it even occur to you. However, being wrong is my favorite thing in the world, and I hope you can give me that thrill.

        • Sumocat says

          Call it right-sizing or embiggening, I’ve already explained why that approach is a patch.

        • Sumocat says

          Wait, I should throw you a bone on this since you don’t use a “mobile OS”. Right-sizing, embiggening, whatever, is the opposite of what happens on the iPhone, Droid, iPad, etc. When you visit a web page on those devices, it usually scales down the page to fit the screen. You can zoom in on sections via two-finger zoom or double-tap, but that’s primarily for viewing/reading. To tap on the tiny shrunken links, zoom is usually not necessary. Hence, the idea of making things bigger, be they buttons or everything, makes no sense as a means of touch-optimization. It certainly can be applied as a patch, and I’m not saying that wouldn’t help, but that only covers the problem. Even then, it would cover it like baggy pants on a fat person and make it more obvious.

    • Anonymous says

      You are explaining one of many reasons why Windows 7 is not touch friendly and it gets worse on smaller screens and / or higher DPIs. If you have to modify the interface to get things touchable then it isn’t touch friendly.

      • aftermath says

        I can’t possibly change your mind if you actually believe what you wrote, because I can’t even understand your mind.

        You said: “You are explaining one of many reasons why Windows 7 is not touch friendly and it gets worse on smaller screens and / or higher DPIs.”

        You can’t possibly be serious. I don’t even think you grasp the terms at play. The size of the screen is NOT the issue. The resolution of the screen is NOT the issue. The PPI (Pixels Per Inch) is the issue. I’m going to assume that you MEANT “PPI” when you SAID “DPI” because I’m willing to believe that you’re trying to make sense (a high DPI makes things much more touch friendly, as explained in the comment to which you responded). Windows 7 doesn’t “get worse” on high PPI screens. The DPI within Windows 7 MIGHT need to be adjusted to meet the needs of specific individuals and specific usage scenarios, and it CAN be adjusted. None of this is bad or implies that Windows 7 is touch unfriendly. That’s the extent of my claims. My main point was that you shouldn’t be allowed to complain that Windows 7 is touch unfriendly without even using it at the natural value of DPI=PPI. Otherwise, it’s the same as complaining that you don’t like “ground beef” because the only way that you’ve ever tried it is raw (which some people like). At that point, you’re reviewing your culinary skills rather than ground beef’s palette or merit.

        In the way that you mean “gets worse”, EVERY SINGLE OPERATING System KNOWN TO HUMAN BEINGS “GETS WORSE” ON HIGH PPI SCREENS. If you think iOS, Android, Mac OS X, or Ubuntu on a 7 inch WUXGA touch screen would be ANY BETTER at their DEFAULT SETTINGS than Windows 7 would be than you are delusional and do not understand the basic technical components of the situation. I mean, Android on higher PPI panels has already shown its awkwardness. Too bad you can’t adjust the DPI to improve the situation. Oh wait, if you could improve the DPI to improve the situation that would imply that Android was LESS touch friendly than the its awkward, touch unfriendly self at the wrong DPI…WHICH MAKES NO SENSE.

        So, you’re going to call a FEATURE a BUG? You can’t possibly believe that the adjustability of the DPI has a logical correlation with touch friendliness. If ANYTHING it would make Windows 7 MORE touch friendly because you can ratchet up the DPI so that it even EXCEEDS the PPI in order to make everything ridiculous simple to hit.

        You said: “If you have to modify the interface to get things touchable then it isn’t touch friendly.”

        You don’t HAVE TO modify anything to get it touchable. It’s already touchable. It already works well at default settings, and depending on the PPI of the panel the degree of “wellness” may vary. The point is that YOU CAN make this adjustment, and everybody can chose their own settings because everybody is different, has different tolerances, and different preferences. That’s OK. However, what I’m really curious about is the extent to which the convenience of your logical fallacies might actually run. My best guess is that you must ABSOLUTELY HATE Android and iOS. I have to believe this about you because I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt as a man who tries to be fair and consistent and succeeds at it. If the simple ability, and lets make this extremely weak statement as strong as possible by saying ABSOLUTE REQUIREMENT, to adjust the DPI in order to improve the touch experience for yourself is sufficient grounds to declare the entire touch friendliness of Windows 7 dead, then you must believe that the hundreds of thousands of “apps” that you can install on Android and iOS devices to make them more useful, personal, fun, creative, enjoyable, and productive are irrefutable evidence that Android and iOS are absolutely useless, impersonal, boring, insufferable, and unproductive with or without the “apps” of a person’s own choosing. The very presence of these optional “features” and the need for an individual use them in order to get the most out of the device mandate that the device itself is incapable of what this feature intends to provide, even with the feature enabled. One reason that I know I’m an idiot is that I can’t possibly get my mind to live in a world complex enough for that to make any sense. I have a tough enough time just navigating basic reality.

        • Anonymous says

          I meant PPI. Perhaps I should clarify and say not user friendly out of the box, but still, size of elements is only part of the touch unfriendliness.

          On some of these small devices (5-inch MID’s with high resolution displays) trying to navigate Windows out-of-the-box is almost impossible without a stylus if you’re not getting by with your fingernails yet thumbing around on a 3.5-inch iPhone or 5-inch Dell Streak won’t work up any brain cells.

  3. Bobby Brooks says

    As one who is constantly searching for XL gloves, I can tell you the problem is not “big buttons”, it is small screens. I’ve recently decided to give it up with a phone for business computing and use my iPad instead. I’m getting a Virgin Mobile flip phone for “just” phone calls.

    • Brett Gilbertson says

      Sorry, ie9 and this new comments thingy does not like the TIP!

      I think you’re right sumocat, there needs to be a plus or minus factor to touch inputs which would improve things. Touch is already treated differently in the OS so I can’t imagine that this would go untouched in future. It can also be addressed at an application level. However, I personally don’t find it to be an issue in most places, it’s only when controls get really small that I have issues with it.

      The whole “not designed or touch” discussion is off track for me. I prefer to have a “not designed for productivity” conversation. I have little interest in devices that waste more of my time than they give me back, no matter how sexy the touch interface is.

      • Sumocat says

        Thanks, and in case you didn’t infer it, I did refine my view of the cursor problem (now whittled down to pinpoint vs. broad) following your discussion on it, so thank you for that. (Wouldn’t mind seeing more of that, hint, hint. ;-P )

    • Brett Gilbertson says

      Sorry, ie9 and this new comments thingy does not like the TIP!

      I think you’re right sumocat, there needs to be a plus or minus factor to touch inputs which would improve things. Touch is already treated differently in the OS so I can’t imagine that this would go untouched in future. It can also be addressed at an application level. However, I personally don’t find it to be an issue in most places, it’s only when controls get really small that I have issues with it.

      The whole “not designed or touch” discussion is off track for me. I prefer to have a “not designed for productivity” conversation. I have little interest in devices that waste more of my time than they give me back, no matter how sexy the touch interface is.

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