Touch may be the next mass-market computing innovation. It’s very interesting – but not surprising – that Microsoft appears to be leading the charge with functionality based on its Surface technology and built into Windows 7.
Despite its reputation for being a follower, not a leader, Microsoft has championed many hardware innovations, and have driven them into the mainstream. One example was the CD-ROM drive. With MSCDEX (The Microsoft CD Extensions), and investment in early CD-ROM products, we have Microsoft to thank for the ubiquity of the computer-based CD player.
While we can live very well without CDs today, bear in mind that in the beginning of the PC era, most computers had one or two floppy-disk drives at best. A few expensive models had 10MB or 20MB hard drives. Corporate networks were scarce, and there was no broadband Internet. The ISO 9660 standard for CD-ROMs gave us 650MB of easily distributable data. Thanks to Microsoft’s consistent support for the technology, DOS learned to read CD-ROMs – and CD-ROM drives became a de facto standard on nearly all desktop and portable computers.
Microsoft didn’t invent the CD-ROM drive, of course, and nor did it invent the two-button mouse, the Ethernet connector, WiFi networks or Universal Serial Bus. The company’s market clout, evangelization through conferences like WinHEC, and pressure on computer makers brought wired and wireless networking and USB to the masses.
The company faltered when it came to pen computing. There were many efforts, beginning with pen extensions to DOS (I own an IBM ThinkPad 750P convertible pen notebook made in 1993). Microsoft rebooted its pen efforts with the Tablet PC and a special version of Windows XP in 2001. Response from consumers and hardware makers was tepid, and the hardware didn’t become ubiquitous on Windows notebooks. Thus, the Tablet PC remained a niche device.
At Microsoft PDC 2009, Microsoft began a new push toward touch-screen computing. While Windows Vista supported touch-screens – and some computer makers like HP offered models that had such screens – it remained a curiosity. With Windows 7, however, Microsoft is signaling that it sees touch as strategic. The company gave special touch-equipped notebooks running Windows 7 to PCD attendees, and appealed to developers to begin creating applications that would recognize – and exploit – the new user interface paradigm.
This is another instance, I believe, where Microsoft is truly being visionary. While mobile products like Apple’s iPhone use a touch interface, only Microsoft has talked about touch-screens as a broad capability. I, for one, would love to see a touch-screen become a standard feature of notebook computers and desktop monitors.
I also hope that Microsoft maintains an open mind – and adheres to open hardware standards. Microsoft helped make CD-ROMs successful – based on ISO 9660. Ethernet, WiFi and USB are also open standards. I’d love to see mainstream Windows notebooks and desktops have touch-screens – but not in a way that precludes innovation by Linux, Unix and Mac OS X. Although I’m generally a Mac user (and am writing this on a MacBook Pro), it would be fun watching Apple play catch-up for a change.