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Touch point: An early look at the next Windows

Multi-touch computing was presented this week as part of Microsoft’s peek at its next operating system, but it’s not likely to be what determines its success.

Multi-touch computing was presented this week as part of Microsoft’s peek at its next operating system, but it’s not likely to be what determines its success.

The new operating system, called Windows 7, is being built upon the current one, Windows Vista, which has been scorned by many for its features, including its achingly slow performance and incompatibilities with existing software and hardware. ( is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

It’s not clear yet whether Windows 7 will mean an improvement in those areas. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and CEO Steve Ballmer, both at The Wall Street Journal’s “D: All Things Digital” conference, where a preview of the new OS was shown, didn’t address those issues.

Ballmer, however, did say that the company is aiming to release Windows 7 late next year, earlier than the 2010 time frame that has been mentioned. And he shared that Vista’s user interface has been one of the biggest complaints, according to consumer research.

“I think Microsoft wanted to put a marker out there, not so much for multi-touch computing, but that the user interface for Windows 7 is going to be a priority,” said Rob Helm, research director for Directions on Microsoft, an independent firm that analyzes the company’s technology and strategy.

That will be crucial in casting the new operating system as truly new, and not just as a revamp of a hobbled Vista, or as a jumbo service pack to it.

Vista: 'A very solid foundation'
Since its release in January, 2007, Vista has been excoriated by Windows users, many of whom have opted to remain with Windows XP, the company’s previous operating system, which has a more familiar look to it than Vista, and runs more efficiently.

Ballmer and Gates did not get into many particulars about Microsoft’s flagship product at the conference Tuesday. But in a posting the same day on the company’s Windows Vista Team blog, Microsoft said that Windows 7 essentially will be based on Vista.

“Windows Vista established a very solid foundation, particularly on subsystems such as graphics, audio and storage,” wrote Chris Flores of Microsoft. “Contrary to some speculation, Microsoft is not creating a new kernel (core) for Windows 7.”

Instead, he wrote, the company is refining the operating system’s architecture and components. Some of those changes may be to the overzealous security controls, as well as to the appearance of the system itself, which requires a lot of computer memory.

The fact that Microsoft shared such information, both on its Web site and at the conference, at this stage of Windows 7’s development, may point to its trying to do damage control caused by Vista.

“They don’t always release much detail so early in the (development) cycle,” said Al Gillen, IDC Research vice president, system software.

Many consumers and businesses have stayed with Windows XP, released in 2001, rather than move to Vista. The operating system’s heftier computer hardware and memory requirements have meant having to purchase new equipment and software, as well as upgrade drivers for peripheral items like printers and scanners.

Touchy subject
At the “D: All Things Digital” conference, Microsoft demonstrated aspects of multi-touch computing in Windows 7, including finger touch being used for drawing on the screen, manipulating photos and finding locations on a map.

“What’s going to get demo-ed, of course are the flashiest and coolest things” of a new operating system, said Helm. “But I think a lot of work is going on behind the scenes just to deal with boring, but really important things, like performance problems and making the security mechanisms – like user account control – work better.”

Multi-touch computing in Windows 7 is a feature that’s “unlikely to make the operating system lighter, and probably going to make it heavier,” said Gillen.

Currently, touchscreen computing is being used more commonly in smaller consumer devices, such as the iPhone and some other cell phones, GPS units and some digital photo frames.

And while touch computing may have its uses in mobile or specialized devices, there doesn’t seem to be any compelling uses for it in terms of routine computer programs such as word processing or spreadsheets.

It’s something that “may be more interesting for some of these mini-laptops” that have small screens and keyboards, said Helm, but “on a PC, it’s not obvious to me what the benefit is.”

No matter how it’s used, there’s a universal problem in going the touch route: oily fingerprints on displays, which are nearly impossible to avoid.

Pandigital recently released its PanTouch digital photo frames, but the frames have a touch sensor on the edge of the viewing area so that the screen itself is not touched.

“You’re just literally touching the edge, so that fingerprints don’t show up in the viewing area at all,” said Dean Finnegan, president of Pandigital.

Finnegan said he is a fan of touchscreens, but says fingerprints are hard to avoid on the screens themselves.

“It’s really the big problem with touch,” he said. “When you have a backlit LCD, and this very bright light shining from behind the LCD display, and when you touch the actual icon, or are in that viewing area, the fingerprint shows up. It’s very obvious, and no one’s been able to effectively solve that problem.”

'Save XP' effort
In the meantime, Microsoft has some other problems, including the ongoing effort to “Save Windows XP,” an online petition drive launched by InfoWorld, which covers the information technology industry.

Galen Gruman, the publication’s executive editor, says it has received more than 200,000 signatures in support of extending the retail availability of Windows XP.

Microsoft plans to stop selling XP to retailers and computer manufacturers June 30. The company will continue to provide mainstream tech support for XP users until April 2009, and will provide “extended” tech support for patches and security updates through April 2014.

XP also will be available for sale until Jan. 31, 2009, by “system builders,” small businesses that custom-build “white box,” or generic, PCs.

So far, Gruman said, Microsoft has declined to discuss the petition or meet with representatives from InfoWorld.

“We haven’t given up on getting such a meeting,” he said.