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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.



  1. John

    04/05/2010 at 4:51 pm

    A simple layer with touch-friendly GUI elements will not cut it. The whole platform, including all 3rd party software must share the same gesture-based GUI paradigm. But even this is not gonna be enough. You need an OS that “prioritizes” speed and efficient power management, that is you need an appropriate OS for mobile use. Mobility requires a different mentality and different priorities…

  2. Ben

    04/05/2010 at 7:00 pm

    If MS is smart, they’d make Windows 8 have “swapable guis” so that the UI could change to a version optimized for your input method. If they were really smart, they’d have done that in vista/win7, but I can forgive them a little while longer.

    While I’m no pro developer, all windows developers always are evangelizing about separating the visual presentation and the underlying logic+data. MS should follow that advice on a grand scale in windows.

    • Nameless

      04/05/2010 at 10:35 pm

      It may be tough to implement, but I’d love to see it happen.

      I came to the same conclusion after realizing how horribly inefficient Remote Desktop was. The app should appear just like a native app on the client, with an optimized interface to match. (Whether the actual processing should be done locally or remotely depends on the nature of the app, of course.)

    • ChrisRS

      04/07/2010 at 10:39 am

      Make that Windows 7.1

      This can be done. It can be done quickly if all MS executives, designers, developers and programmers were required to traded out their large multiple monitors, mice, track balls, etc. for touch scteens and pens.

      They would develop the necessary mindset to improve the touch and ink implementation that are necessary to be effective and eeficient, if they relied on touch and ink on a daily basis.

  3. Jeff Jackson

    04/06/2010 at 8:04 am

    I’ve always thought cursor control on touch screens should just treat the touch screen as one big touch pad a la notebooks. Windows Vista/7 does have the virtual mouse thing that I always enable on my tablet that almost does the job right. But I’d still rather leave the absolute coordinate stuff use the active pen only and the touch stuff just move the mouse depending on my relative motions on the touch screen. It’s a familiar paradigm that is already proven to work well and doesn’t have the problem of obscuring the cursor when you touch the screen and even works for hovering the cursor.

  4. everbrave

    04/07/2010 at 2:20 am

    It seems that Apple was very right in using the iPhone OS on the iPad instead of MacOS X.

  5. Hey Linux already works this way

    04/17/2010 at 8:51 pm

    Hey Linux already works this way! The GUI already is separated from the OS… always has been… The MS crowd should be more at home with Linux then ever…

    Looking forward to the “Touchface” vs. “Cursorface” GUI flame wars for MS… just like the early GNOME vs KDE battles 10 years ago…

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