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Windows 8/RT touch interface confuses, frustrates early users

Many long-time Microsoft Windows desktop users face a steep learning curve, analysts say

Some early users of Microsoft's Surface RT tablet say they are confused or frustrated by the touch interface on the 10.6-in. display and are relying instead on the attachable keyboard with its more conventional track pad and arrow keys to input commands.

Most long-time Windows users are expected to eventually make the adjustment to a touch tablet.

But analysts say many users will first training classes from makers of all types of Windows 8 devices -- not just the RT operating system designed for mobile devices.

"It does take a bit of time to learn your way around the OS," said a recent Surface RT buyer from Bloomington, Ind. who used the name "hans030390" in an Anandtech forum. "A lot of the touch gestures and operations are different than what you'd expect if coming from iOS or Android. But once you get used to them they work really, really well!"

Hans added that "It's a bit tricky navigating around in the desktop mode with touch ... If you have the Touch Cover, it's a non-issue thanks to the tiny track pad."

Several experts echoed the touch navigation concerns raised in the forum.

Many said that workplaces will need to incur costs to train traditional Windows desktop users to use the Windows 8 touch input, whether the OS is used on the Surface RT, the Surface Pro tablet that's coming in less than three months or on Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets made by third party manufacturers.

"Plenty of people who are Windows lovers ... will say 'Oh, this is just Windows on a tablet' and will be frustrated," warns Karl Volkman, chief technology officer at SRV Network, a Chicago IT services provider with 200 small and mid-size business customers. "I myself have a lot of frustrations with the interface. There's a lot of swiping through to find tiles."

Instead of using familiar Windows menus, Windows 8 users must remember where a tile is located and its name to find their work, he added. Creating shortcuts can also add confusion, he said.

Volkman and his co-workers have extensively used preview versions of Windows 8 in workstation and server configurations.

Adding a Touch Cover or Type Cover to a Windows RT tablet could also confuse new buyers because they may start to treat it as a laptop instead of as a tablet with touch gestures, Volkman said.

"Any tablet with an external keyboard throws people off, partly because of the fact that Windows and Microsoft have driven innate behaviors that people have done for years withkeyboards and mice," Volkman said.

Since the iPad first emerged with attachable keyboards nearly three years ago, analysts have warned that users could get weary from moving back and forth from tablet screen to keyboard to make commands.

Volkman advises that users ditch the attachable keyboard at first. "The best way to learn the Windows tablet is to not use the [physical] keyboard for a while, and just use the touchscreen," he said.

Once users become familiar with the touchscreen, they can start using the attached keyboard to type long documents and emails while using the onscreen keyboard for shorter messages.

Microsoft began selling the Surface RT tablet, priced from $499 for a 32 GB version, last Friday. A black Touch Cover (with a thin full keyboard) adds $100 to the 32 GB version.

Separately, the Touch Cover, available in five colors, costs $120. The Type Cover (with mechanical keys) comes only in black costs $130.

Both covers include a track pad for navigation as well as directional keys and other standard keyboard keys.

Microsoft is conducting Windows 8 training sessions for large institutions, enterprises and universities. Volkman said part of the curriculum for those classes focus on helping users of the traditional Windows operating system adapt to a touch interface.

A Microsoft spokesman said the company has done extensive research to determine the difficulty average users will face in navigating through Windows 8.

The company studied how users reacted when trying to figure out the new OS on their own, when given hours of training and everything in between, he said.

"In the end, the sweet spot was to show them some basic concepts [such swipe from the right for functions] and people found it enjoyable and easy to discover things on their own from there," the spokesman, Jordan Guthmann, said via email.

"There will clearly be a training and adjustment period with the Windows 8 interface," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. "It is different enough so that if you are a long time Windows user, you will have to re-learn how to interact with the device." Gold estimated it could take up to two weeks for many users to become proficient in using the new interface, possibly longer if previous Windows-based apps that a user is familiar with are not optimized for a touch interface.

Volkman and many other experts recommend that workplaces skip the Windows RT tablets in favor of Windows 8-based tablets or the Surface Pro when it ships. The latter devices function with many Windows applications that have lomng been widely used in work settings.

Volkman recommends that his clients wait for a Windows 8 tablet that has "full bore Office" instead of the Home and Student version now shipping with Surface RT.

"Demand for Windows 8 will be driven by existing Office apps. Having full-fledged Windows all the way up, from smartphones to tablets to workstations [means that you] don't have to wait for a software provider to rewrite their entire system for each device," Volkman said.

Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney said enterprise IT shops should wait for some Windows 8 tablet designs that he's seen but are still not announced. "Gartner is only going to recommend Windows 8 on x86 processors," he said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

Read more about operating systems in Computerworld's Operating Systems Topic Center.


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