Switched On: Microsoft's touchy subjects

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

As CEO of Microsoft, Bill Gates would often talk about his dream of "information at your fingertips." The company he co-founded, though, is now taking literal steps toward that goal. By the end of the month, Microsoft will have released three new devices or platforms that embrace or extend touchscreen support -- but the impact touch will have on each varies significantly by their legacy, usage, and manufacturers.

Windows has long had touchscreen support. Such support, in fact, was the basis of the Tablet Edition of Windows XP, and Tablet PCs were proclaimed to be the future of notebooks. Early iterations were larger and thicker keyboard-lacking slates much like the new Archos 9pctablet. But this was before rampant Web browsing, streaming video, casual games and electronic books -- all of which now provide relevance for a new generation of touchscreen PCs as content-consumption devices.

Combined with the low prices and sleeker form factors of today's netbook and CULV platforms, we'll soon see PC companies rolling out consumer touchscreen PCs both with and without keyboards. Unlike Tablet PCs of old, they'll be finger-friendly, but Windows itself won't look very different despite its support of touch -- very few manufacturers are investing in distinct interfaces that really take advantage of the plumbing.

Like the Windows on the desktop, the history of touch-enabled mobile devices from Microsoft runs deep, with the earliest Windows CE-based PDAs supporting stylus input. Since the advent of the iPhone, though, many Windows Mobile vendors have added finger-friendly user interface layers to their phones, and with Windows Mobile 6.5 Microsoft has brought its own spin across the platform with easier targets for controls and a revamped stepped grid app launcher. This brings Windows Mobile a bit closer to platforms that have embraced touch at their core like Android and webOS.

However, the nature of Windows Mobile licensing and the competitive smartphone market means that many Windows phone users will hardly see the results of Microsoft's touch rehash -- HTC, Sony Ericsson, Samsung and others all bring their own user interface layers to their handsets. Indeed, promising handsets such as HTC's HD2 will bring Windows Mobile to a new level of user experience by combining a large, capacitive touchscreen with a fast processor, but the primary interface is HTC's Sense, not Windows Mobile. Regardless, it's hard to deny Windows Mobile 6.5 represents a refinement of what has essentially been a touch platform from the beginning.

Finally, there is the Zune HD, Microsoft's answer to the iPod touch that represents a marked contrast from Apple's most advanced iPod. While both devices use a multitouch screen and employ similar gestures for browsing Web pages and photos, The Zune HD shows Microsoft's thinking about a limited functionality device. As opposed to iPod touch screens filled with icons and button controls, most screens on the Zune are represented by miniature previews of themselves. The result is a richer representation that blurs boundaries of modality at the cost of some screen clutter.

The Zune HD's touch interface is not just an engaging touch interface in its own right, but one of the best examples of how a non-touch user interface can be transformed into a touch-centric one with few compromises. Unfortunately, given Microsoft's low market share and limited distribution, far fewer will experience one of Microsoft's best user interfaces -- most will instead experience the quiet touch overlay of Windows 7 or the largely buried one of Windows Mobile. Zune HD user interface concepts may be seeds that will grow into a major makeover for Windows 7, but there will need to be accommodations to meet the requirements of a wider range of hardware running a wider array of software.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.