According to some experts, the touch interface will be the next big thing in personal computing; others view it as a gimmick. I'm split on the issue. But the success of Apple's iPhone proves that touch, if done correctly, is a great way to navigate a digital device. Microsoft hopes it can repeat the trick with Windows 7.
Microsoft has been developing touch interface technology for several years. In 2007 it unveiled its Microsoft Surface technology, a multi-touch tabletop computer that may ultimately find a niche market in government, educational and healthcare kiosks. And a year ago it demoed touch features it's adding to Windows 7, which will ship this autumn. For a demo of Win 7's multi-touch skills, check out this video.
Now Microsoft has introduced the Microsoft Touch Pack for Windows 7, a set of six games and applications that are optimised for multi-touch PCs. The Touch Pack will be available to PC makers, who'll have the option of installing the software on touch-ready systems. Here's a quick rundown of what it offers.
- Microsoft Surface Globe: Based on the demo video, this app looks like the best thing in the Touch Pack. Navigation is a natural for touchscreens, and Surface Globe, with its Virtual Earth 3D engine that lets you rotate around 3D models of buildings, makes Google Maps look low-tech by comparison. Perhaps Microsoft should incorporate Surface Globe into its upcoming Kumo search engine. The move might spur sales of Windows 7 multi-touch PCs, and give people a reason to try Kumo instead of Google Search.
- Microsoft Surface Collage: The ability to resize and organise digital photos is another great use for touch, and that's what Surface Collage offers. I'm not sure if the app includes simple image-editing tools such as cropping, but it should.
The remaining four apps seem more like tech demos to illustrate the capabilities of multi-touch, but they could be fun.
- Microsoft Blackboard: A physics puzzle that lets you use gestures to build a virtual machine of gears, fans and seesaws.
- Microsoft Garden Pond: Gently move your origami creations in a virtual pond.
- Microsoft Rebound: A game where you "propel a ball and annihilate your opponent" on an electrified court.
- Microsoft Surface Lagoon: A screensaver where you use multi-touch to interact with the fish.
Will multi-touch someday make the keyboard and mouse obsolete? Not in the near future, certainly. But it's bound to play an increasingly important role in human-computer interaction.