Why Windows 7 will never be a touch-friendly OS

Those with long memories may remember the work done nearly a decade ago to produce 300ppli ultra-high-resolution screens for Windows, and you’ll notice the lack of such hardware on sale today. Not only was it prohibitively expensive to make such screens and the commensurate graphics cards, but almost every application barfed at a system resolution of 300ppli (it they can’t cope with 120ppli, what chance do they have at 300ppli?).

Why Windows 7 will never be a touch-friendly OS

Some vendors are trying to get around all these problems by shipping a set of touch-optimised applications that run in their own touch-desktop environment. If you stick to this very limited ecosystem, you can paint, draw, control media and so forth. But as soon as you go back into a standard Windows application, the whole façade collapses. Custom graphical touch-orientated applications simply aren’t the answer, the solution has to be baked into the OS.

If you want an example that’s enough to make you cry, just look at the flyout onscreen keyboard Windows 7 supplies whenever it thinks you need to type something

If you want an example that’s enough to make you cry, just look at the flyout onscreen keyboard Windows 7 supplies whenever it thinks you need to type something. Sure, it can be moved around the screen so it doesn’t obscure an application, but there’s no baked-in, OS-level intelligence about where to put it, or how to arrange its windows to work most effectively. In the end, you have to conclude that it’s in the wrong place wherever it sits.

So, to the inevitable question – how could Microsoft make a really good touch version of Windows? The answer isn’t as simple as you might think. It needs a ground-up OS redesign that makes everything within Windows operate in a truly touch-orientated fashion, and then a decision needs to be made about backwards compatibility for existing apps.

Do you change the ppli value and hope the app doesn’t break? Some vendors are doing this, while others are shying away from even this small step. Could we have a composited desktop, where each application can run at its own preferred ppli value? Maybe, and that would allow hot-zooming in and out of applications. Surely this is possible, given the 3D compositing power of the Windows 7 desktop engine, but it’s probably beyond the capabilities of typical onboard Intel chipset graphics adapters, which tend to writhe on the floor when asked to do anything requiring 3D power.

Microsoft announcing an ARM port of Windows 7 at CES in Las Vegas isn’t a magic bullet. Simply putting Windows 7 onto ARM will be only a short-term platform fix, but it won’t fix the underlying issues, and without determined vision these intractable issues won’t get fixed any time soon. If they can’t be fixed on a 24in desktop all-in-one PC today, with effectively unlimited processing and graphics power, they certainly won’t get fixed inside the tight limitations of a portable tablet PC.

Finally, some have suggested that Windows Phone 7 might make a good candidate for a touch desktop and tablet. Well it might, but there are serious issues there too. First, are we really sure that the WP7 user interface will scale up to an 8in tablet? I’m far from convinced. Maybe Microsoft should be bold and forget touch for mainstream input and control. Instead, write a simple, clean OS that relies on touch for choices, but uses voice control for any sort of significant input.

Microsoft could leverage the extraordinary capability that the Xbox 360 Kinect system has demonstrated and come up with something truly amazing. Microsoft has the brains, the money, and the need to do this. The only question is whether it has the determination to leap beyond the iPad generation.

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