Will touchscreen PCs catch on?

Among the plethora of shiny new Windows 7 PCs, laptops and netbooks bowing amid much ballyhoo in the last week are a handful of models with touchscreens.

A gimmick, right? Touchscreens are fine for cellphones and maybe a tablet, but for a desktop PC? What additional flexibility could a touchscreen offer that a keyboard, mouse or scratchpad can't? And won't your computer screen soon be covered with finger oil smudges and streaks? Touchscreens will be a boon to screen-wipey makers, but no one else, right?

I had a chance to reach out and touch touchscreen PCs from Sony and HP over the last couple of weeks, and I've come to the conclusion that for desktop PCs, touchscreens are the most important input innovation since the mouse. Within a couple of years, touchscreens will be a pervasive feature on a majority of new Windows PCs.

But what about Apple? After all, Jobs & Co. legitimized touch as an acceptable interface for the masses with the iPhone. But Apple's new iMac line, as pretty as it is, doesn't include touchscreens.

The implications of Windows touch/iMac no touch after these commercial messages.

A Touching Demonstration

Yes, HP has had touchscreen PCs for a while, but now that Windows 7 supports touch natively, everyone can get into this touching game.

During the touchscreen demos I attended in the last few weeks, however, I was skeptical. I couldn't cross the a philosophical barrier between thinking of the screen as a dumb, disembodied reflection of my computing desires and it now serving as an actual active computing input participant. For a quarter century, we have used a mouse to "point" at on-screen icons, relying on that digitized waldo to manipulate our physical movements into computerized action as a substitute for pointing with our actual digits.

At some point during the demos, I "got" it. How often have I stared at my screen and wondered where the hell the cursor is? Or how often have I been confronted by a screenfull of photo thumbnails or a lengthy playlist and had to laboriously scroll or situate my mouse to choose one? How often have I searched in vain for the right pull-down menu option, Control+X combo or toolbar icon to zoom, shrink, rotate or otherwise manipulate an onscreen image or video?

Why not just reach out and touch or multi-touch? D'uh! Groking the implications of touch (yes, another Robert Heinlein reference) came quicker thanks to my experience with iPhone and subsequent touchy smartphones, and likely will help everyone leap this philosophical chasm as well.

Reach Out and Touch

HP and Sony set up their demo stations on tall tables, and I experienced touch by standing slightly above the display. Standing and reaching downward to touch the screen like a retail kiosk seemed perfectly natural — it felt just like using an ATM, just with more options.

But people don't use their computers standing up. What are the ergonomic implications of reaching across to a touchscreen a couple of feet away while sitting, while muscle memory keeps your hands hovering over the keyboard or instinctively sliding slightly to the right to grip the mouse?

You're likely sitting at your desktop PC as you're reading this. Reach out and touch HERE.

How natural did that action feel?

That's a false test, of course, since touching your screen didn't result in a corresponding seemingly magical onscreen action, sort of the delicious treat received for ringing the correctly colored bell in the cage. If you have a touchscreen smartphone, lean it against your PC screen and reach out and touch it. Is the stretch a comfortable one? How good is your finger-pointing aim?

It may feel weird now, but my guess is we'll not only get used to reaching out and touching our PC screens but, once we experience the instant gratification touching provides, we'll come to rely upon it.

Touch Pros and Cons

Touchscreens could quickly proliferate because they're relatively cheap. HP's two third-generation Touchsmart desktop PCs, the 20-inch 300 and the 23-inch 600 start at $900 and $1,050 respectively, and Sony's VAIO L Touch HD PC/TV starts at $1,300. These prices do not represent a substantial premium over what we'll come to see as static and crippled non-touch alternatives. For me, it's like spending a little more to get an HDTV over an analog TV.

But both Sony and HP have overlayed a proprietary touch graphical user interface (GUI) over Windows 7. Yes, Windows 7 supports touch natively, but not nearly as elegantly as the HP and Sony proprietary GUIs. Whether or not other PC makers have the programming wherewithall to create similar touch GUIs that help more than harm remains to be seen. Poor touch experiences may stall the proliferation of touch PCs.

Apple, of course, is one company that should have no trouble with creating a seamless touchscreen interface sans a special extra touch GUI. The question is, will it?

Apple noTouch

In reaction to the hullaballo surrounding the launch of Windows 7 this week, Apple will launch its own anti-Windows 7 marketing blitz. I don't know about you, but I'm getting tired of the "PC sucks" attitude of the Justin Long-John Hodgman Mac vs. PC ads. As a long-time Apple user (full disclosure), I want the company to open up a little positive reasoning daylight between Mac Snow Leopard and Windows 7 beyond the tweaky "Mac OS is still faster" claims.

At retail, Apple can differentiate its PC products by stressing ease of use, relative safety from viruses, ecosystem, even cool factor. But the real-world value proposition decision between a sub-$1,300 24-inch Windows 7 PC with touch capabilities vs. a sub-$1,300 22-inch iMac without touch will be no decision at all for most consumers.

Unless, of course, Apple figures out how we can control an iMac by voice command. Both the voice-controlled Google Search and iPhone's voice command work pretty well and are likely to improve, so total voice control isn't exactly a fantasy. Perhaps Apple will intuitively combine the two at some point.

In all events, I believe touchscreen PCs will become the norm. In a few years we may react like Scotty did in Star Trek IVto a mouse-only PC. How quaint!