In my research leading up to the Windows 8 announcement, I never heard people voice a desire for touch as a way to navigate among apps. They were quite comfortable using a mouse and trackpad as they had been doing for years. Even now our research shows that many folks feel that lifting their hands off their keyboard or mouse to touch the screen is unnatural.
So why did Microsoft rush a new UI to the PC market if folks were happy with their existing one? The answer to this question probably lies in Microsoft's desire to differentiate and, to an extent, leapfrog Apple and Samsung by making touch central to future PCs. The company observed how people navigate their mobile devices with their fingers and probably thought that if touch was good for mobile, it would be even better for PCs.
At Microsoft Build, thousands of attendees awkwardly tried to navigate their new Surface Pros and Windows 8 laptops. If they were sitting up in a chair, they had to lean forward to touch the screen. Then they would then sit back and type and if they had to touch the screen again, they had to what we jokingly call "bow to it." In contrast, people with laptops fitted with trackpads sat straight up in their chairs and worked diligently with no interruption in body movements.
This issue is magnified if you want precise cursor placement. In fact, many touch-based laptops, especially those going into IT, now come with mice since using your finger to find the exact place to insert a number in a spreadsheet or DTP document can be very difficult.
Interestingly, a new product will ship this month from Leap Motion, and it embraces gestures but still allows a person to remain working in a natural way. The small £70 Leap Motion Controller plugs into your USB port and uses software to interpret your gesture motions. It lets you manipulate 3D objects with your fingers, wave at the screen to advance Windows 8 tile pages, and even draw with your fingers while still sitting upright.
I've been hearing about this product ever since it won the Breakout Digital Trend Award at SXSW last March. I finally got to see a demo in person and am highly intrigued. It works very well and is a breath of fresh air on Windows 8 when it comes to integrating gestures.
This presents a big question: If touch takes off, will Apple ever bring a touchscreen to MacBooks and iMacs? I really doubt it given the company’s studies of how people actually use laptops and PCs and the kinesiology behind the motions used to navigate them. If Apple was to add a touchscreen to any laptop-like product, it would probably be in the form of a hybrid or convertible. There have been rumours of such a device but as of now they are just rumours.
Over time, as cheaper versions of Windows 8 touch laptops hit the market, the touch UI will become an optional way for people to interact with their PCs and desktops. However, the uptake in Windows 8 would have been better if Microsoft had gradually moved to touch first through smart trackpads on low-end laptops and PCs without touchscreens. But forcing Windows 8 on all PC users, even ones without touchscreens, cost the company and its partners dearly by reducing demand for PCs during this past year – as if tablets weren't already putting enough pressure on the market.