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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Windows 8 and the Reign of the Finger

Microsoft’s new OS gives pride of place to the index finger.

  • September 21, 2011

If there’s a common thread in the avalanche of news and commentary following last week’s Windows 8 debutante ball (also known as the Microsoft Build conference), it’s this: the index finger reigns supreme. Though Windows 8 is ostensibly a hardware agnostic operating system–running on tablets, laptops, and desktops alike when it launches, presumably sometime in 2012–make no mistake: this is an OS that favors touch.

“While we were developing Windows 7, touch took off everywhere,” Julie Larson-Green of the Windows Experience group said at the conference. “People want to be able to, and expect to be able to, touch the screen.” To a public increasingly accustomed to smart phones and tablets, there is a growing feeling that a device or operating system that is not attuned to touch is downright inadequate. We want our pinch-and-zoom, and our swipe-and-scroll, whatever device we’re on.

The index finger’s supremacy was underscored by little details in the forthcoming OS–the fact that you can choose to password-protect your device with a doodle rather than a word, for instance. And several observers who have gone hands-on with the OS on a laptop or desktop have observed how Windows 8 has a tendency to steer its users into its touch-centric “Metro” interface, familiar to Windows Phone 7 users. As Dana Wollman’s thorough walkthrough of Windows 8 on a laptop illustrates, after clicking over into the traditional desktop mode, simple actions that you would expect to be able to perform within the desktop (like clicking on the start button in the lower-left-hand corner) shunt you right back in to Metro’s live tile mode. “The interface really is anchored in the live tiles, so you kind of just have to get used to that,” she says.

This is surely no accident. As PC sales languish, growth is in mobile–and Redmond knows it. ComputerWorld recently spotted a Connected Intelligence survey that draws an interesting observation: the main reason consumers say they don’t plan to buy a Windows Phone 7 is that they don’t know enough about it. Windows 8, which is sure to be adopted widely in businesses around the world, is extremely similar to Windows Phone 7. As Windows 8 becomes widespread, in contexts where it can’t even be avoided if you wanted to (Windows remains an enterprise favorite), Microsoft will build familiarity with the interface across new audiences. Suddenly, to a new smart phone or tablet customer, Android or iOS might seem daunting in comparison to what they’re already familiar with–the Metro interface. It seems reasonable to infer, as ComputerWorld’s Preston Gralla does, that “[m]aking people comfortable with the interface makes it more likely they’ll buy a Windows Phone 7 device”–or any mobile device running Metro.

The key to your heart (and wallet) may be through your index finger. By pushing its touch-centric interface on even the stodgiest desktop traditionalists, Microsoft may be able to catch a bigger portion of the lucrative mobile computing pie.

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