While current netbooks are already rapidly capturing the attention and credit cards of savvy travelers, the addition of multi-touch support in Windows 7 could be the spark that sets off a firestorm of netbook purchases later this year.
Touch is one of the most exciting, yet least discussed features of Windows 7. Although most people associate multi-touch features with Apple’s iPhone and iPod Touch products, the idea has existed for years and Microsoft conceptualized multi-touch for the Microsoft Surface tabletop computer as far back as 2001. If you use an iPhone, then you already know how to use multi-touch. If you already own a netbook, you’ll want to hock it on Craigslist when the Windows 7 netbooks featuring multi-touch displays hit the market.
While most computers can benefit from the use of this technology, netbooks are a special case. First of all, their tiny keyboards and touchpads beg for a heavy dose of human-interface assistance. Additionally, the limited real estate afforded by their small screens is an obvious candidate for pinch-style zooming and for scrolling with a simple and intuitive flick of the finger.
The cost of adding capacitive touch-screen functionality to diminutive screens will be much less than with laptop and desktop monitors with their relatively large surfaces. The Touch feature set is only available with Windows 7 Home Premium and higher Windows editions, which adds to the overall cost; however people buy netbooks as much for portability as for price. People purchasing based on size and features and will be willing to spend the extra $100 or so for significantly improved usability
A few touch-screen netbooks already exist, for example Dell’s education-focused Latitude 2100 is available with an optional touch screen. Also on the market are the relatively pricy Gigabyte Touchnote series of tablet-style convertible touch-screen netbooks. While these single-touch computers can be useful for a number of things, to really take advantage of the new Windows 7 features, you’ll need one that can recognize the input from multiple fingers, not just one. Capacitive multi-touch LCD panels are currently being manufactured in quantity, and I expect to see netbooks with them launched on the same day as Windows 7
Some netbooks, like the Lenovo S10, feature a multi-touch trackpad as an upgrade option. This is a great feature, but touching the actual image you’re manipulating is vastly more intuitive on a small device.
Touch-enabled netbooks will likely have massive appeal for business users. Much like the iPhone allowed users to competently navigate non-mobile optimized Web sites on a 3.5-inch display; multi-touch netbooks will enable business users to organically and quickly navigate spreadsheets and word-processing documents on 8.9- to10.2-inch displays. People will be able to zoom in and tap on a cell to modify a formula much more quickly and with less frustration than they can with a shrunken keyboard and touchpad. The laptop can now stay its docking station while the netbook travels comfortably inside a briefcase.
Michael Scalisi is an IT manager based in Alameda, California.