Touchscreen Desktop Computers Are Coming

Touch-sensitive screens from the likes of Dell are moving way beyond devices such as Apple's iPhone. But don't trash your mouse yet

One of the most striking effects of Apple's (AAPL) success with the iPhone is that it has made us think of touch as a natural and efficient way to interact with our electronic tools. So far, the touch revolution has been limited mainly to phones and other handheld devices, but it's coming to computers, and it is going to make a big difference.

Touch-sensitive screens have been around for some years, but until the development of a technology called capacitive touch—the sort used on the iPhone—the displays were intended for use with a pen or stylus. Capacitive touch gives reasonably precise results even when poked with a fat finger. And, more important, the new screens can sense multiple touches at once, enabling sophisticated ways of interacting, such as using your fingers to stretch or shrink images on the screen.

A New Latitude

Touch will come to PCs in a big way this fall when Microsoft (MSFT) launches Windows 7. The latest version of Windows includes extensive support for multi-touch screens, but while test versions of Windows 7 are readily available, hardware to run it is scarce. Fortunately, Dell (DELL) has just come out with a new version of its Latitude XT, a so-called tablet computer that can be used without a keyboard. The new XT2 ($2,300 and up—big capacitive screens are expensive) comes with a 12-in. display from N-trig. Its DuoSense technology lets you control programs either with a pen or with your finger. You can use this convertible laptop either as a conventional clamshell notebook or, by rotating the screen, as a slate. It features a faster processor, longer battery life, and lots of other goodies.

I loaded the XT2 with Windows 7 and preliminary multi-touch software from N-trig. The result isn't perfect. But it does point to a new way of interacting with a computer, one that could move touchscreens from niche applications in vertical markets such as inventory processing to the mainstream of computing.

At the simplest level, your finger is a mouse. That idea may be familiar if you have used an iPhone or seen it demonstrated on TV, but somehow it's more revolutionary on a larger device running work-related programs. Touching an onscreen object selects it, tapping an icon or link acts as a mouse click. If you hold your finger on the title bar of a window, you can drag the window around the screen. The same gesture on the edge or bottom of the window lets you increase the size or shrink it.

Intuitive Touch Tricks

That's helpful, but not all that surprising. I was more taken with the ability, in some programs, to scroll through content in the window by sliding my finger up and down or side to side. This works nicely in Internet Explorer but not in Firefox, a problem that should be fixed before Windows 7 ships. Pinching or stretching out two fingers on the screen lets you shrink or expand the contents of a window, so you can zoom in or out on a Web page, map, or picture. (Oddly, this works fine in Firefox.)

There are some other two-finger tricks. If you touch something on the screen with one finger down and tap with a second, you bring up a menu of content-specific actions, the equivalent of a right click. In Windows Photo Gallery, you can rotate a picture with a circular gesture using two fingers. And tapping an icon at the edge of the screen brings up a big onscreen keyboard designed for use with fingers rather than a stylus.

Windows 7 touch has a ways to go before people start abandoning keyboards and mice in droves. Developers have to do some work to get programs and even components of Windows to respond consistently to touch gestures. The response should be crisper—though the sluggishness I experienced may indicate that the hardware itself and the low-level N-trig software that runs it still need work. Also, there have to be a lot more touch-capable computers. Right now the field is limited to the Latitude XT2 and the Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) TouchSmart.

I am sure that as the hardware and software get better, touch will become an important feature of Windows. Once you've used it for a while, it feels a lot more natural than a mouse.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.