Will Windows 7 Bring Touchscreens to the Mainstream?

Touchscreen PCs have always been something of a niche product, but that may change with the launch of Windows 7, which adds support for multitouch gestures — sliding, pinching, and swiping fingertips across the screen — that gained instant fame with the launch of the first iPhone.

PC vendors are rolling out a wave of new systems that incorporate Windows 7's multitouch features. Touchscreen desktops include HP's well-reviewed (if pricey) TouchSmart 600 all-in one system; on the laptop side, there's Lenovo's ThinkPad T400s with its innovative four-fingered touch input. Asus, MSI, Fujitsu, and other PC makers are getting touchy as well.

The touch craze may also be a boon for sales of all-in-one (AIO) desktop PCs. Market researcher DisplaySearch predicts that 5.9 million AIO desktops will ship worldwide next year, up from just 3.2 million in 2007.

Niche or Necessity?

It remains to be seen, however, whether the overnight success of touchscreens in the smartphone world translates to the desktop/laptop PC market. Will touch become the primary interface that supplants the keyboard and mouse/touchpad? I doubt it. Touch is useful for some tasks, but it's slower and clumsier for many things.

Over lengthy periods of time, touch can become uncomfortable too. FirstStreet, a retailer that sells a PC for seniors call the Go Computer, tested touchscreens in elderly communities. It found that touch interfaces were difficult to use after a few hours. The repetitive motions of raising the arm, even for users without physical problems, were tiring. I suspect that younger users would have similar issues, if not as severe. It's telling that Apple's new iMacs add multitouch features to the innovative new Magic Mouse, but not to the display. Were ergonomics a factor?

Touch is ideal for smartphones, but that's because users typically cradle the device in one hand. The arms are in a lowered, more relaxed position. I suspect that touch will evolve into a supplemental PC input device, one that accompanies the standard keyboard/mouse combo. Voice input will eventually play a role as well.

Contact Jeff Bertolucci via Twitter (@jbertolucci) or at jbertolucci.blogspot.com.

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