Tech guru John Dvorak once called the Windows 8 operating system an "unmitigated disaster." He predicted that the public and business
sectors would demand a return to Windows 7 -- a product considered one of Microsoft
's best operating systems. Other critics chimed in, saying you can't take a user interface that works on a smartphone and expect it to be successful on a PC.
Now, pundits are quietly shaking their heads, wondering not what went wrong but why Microsoft wasn't aware that touch for work devices was a design, marketing, earnings, and branding disaster waiting to happen.
No doubt, touchscreen smartphones have been the rage of the decade and in beauty and design Apple captured the touchscreen throne with the iPhone.
Trouble is, a computing experience is not a smartphone experience. On Sunday, Frederic Lardinois of TechCrunch provided this one-year update of Microsoft's touch debacle: "'Touch first' -- which begat Windows 8 and the Surface -- was the wrong move. That ship has sailed."
Off the Tracks
Microsoft's recent bad quarter -- earnings missed Wall Street estimates -- included the $900 million write-down against Surface RT inventory adjustments. It seemed Microsoft was on a "touch-first" ride that fell off the tracks. And Windows 8 was part of the problem.
Introduced last year, Windows 8 was promoted as proof of a new era for Microsoft Windows -- a scale-up from touch on small phone screens to full screens that you could work on with or without your old-fashioned keyboard and mouse.
However, most users did not care for the Windows 8 touch interface. But the failure of the Windows 8 touch feature was not, as some proponents tried to shape it, a matter of old habits dying hard. The failure of touch was more of a square peg chafing against a round hole.
Angle, Distance, Time
David Pogue offered some possible explanations in the Scientific American article, "Why Touch Screens Will Not Take Over." He noted that although Microsoft provided mouse and keyboard equivalents, they appeared to be intended as crutches until such time as touch would control all computers.
Forget about screen smudges and finger marks. Here are the real differences between PCs and touch screens: angle, distance, and time intervals.
"The screen of a phone or tablet is generally more or less horizontal," Pogue said. "The screen of a desktop (or a laptop on a desk), however, is more or less vertical."
As for distance, your phone is up close to your body. Your screen may be several feet away, requiring you to reach out and touch it for painfully long intervals.
Last but hardly least: You have to make small, precise moves on the glass, on a vertical surface, at arms' length. These movements cause an affliction Pogue called "gorilla arm," a tingling ache that results from extending the arm to manipulate the screen for long periods.
"My belief is that touchscreens make sense on mobile computers but not on stationary ones," Pogue said. "Microsoft is making a gigantic bet that I'm wrong."
Anyone who has gone to a trade show in the past several years has heard the pitch that touch-based mobile devices are transforming the way users interact with computers.
The time is coming, though, where "transform" belongs in the past tense. Touch-enabled screens were a starting point for a coming revolution in user interfaces. Innovations, especially for computing devices that require real work, are in progress.
Voice-recognition, gesture recognition -- actually, a brave new world of perceptual computing -- is in the wings.