The inconvenient truth about Windows 7 touch support

One Kevin C. Tofel of jkOnTheRun reports that the price to upgrade from Windows 7 Starter Edition on new netbooks has dropped. He also takes the opportunity to reiterate a criticism which is not entirely accurate but reveals an inconvenient truth.

In the past, I harshly criticized touchscreen netbooks that come with Microsoft Windows 7 Starter Edition. Why? There’s simply no point in paying for a touchscreen display if the device operating system doesn’t support touch input.

The inaccurate part is the lack of touch input support. In fact, Windows 7 Starter does support touch input but only as cursor control. Flicks and gestures are part of the tablet functionality limited to the premium versions. This distinction reveals what I believe are serious flaws in the state of Windows 7 touch support.

1. Vendors think cursor control is good enough. It’s not, especially on a touch screen. The cursor is always blocked by your finger. Hover is challenging if not impossible. The cursor puts a wall between the user and the interface. Instead of manipulating items on screen with touch, you’re manipulating the cursor with touch to manipulate items on screen. Basically, cursor control wasn’t made with touchscreens in mind, so putting them together is a compromise at best.

2. Microsoft thinks cursor control is good enough. They knew vendors were putting touchscreens on netbooks, but still chose not to include tablet touch functionality in Windows 7 Starter Edition. Leaving out the pen support and media center is fine, but they’re just cutting themselves out of the touchscreen netbook market by tying touch input to them.

3. They’re not entirely wrong about cursor control being good enough. Flicks and gestures improve touch control, but for the most part, Windows uses the same cursor-driven, desktop-based interface in all of its editions. Controlling the cursor via a touchscreen is clumsy but you can’t do anything without it.

And there lies the problem. As long as you’re using the standard Windows interface, cursor control is all you really need because the interface is built on it. The only way around that is to build a new interface layer over it, in which case it doesn’t really matter which version of Windows is under it. Just look at the promo videos HP has leaked for their upcoming slate. Very slick, very exciting, no sign of Windows 7. If it wasn’t for their cursor-plagued video showing Flash support, you’d never know it ran Windows and I can’t blame HP for hiding that in the promos. Through their own inaction, Microsoft is letting Windows become increasingly irrelevant in the new tablet age.