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Windows 8: Are PC People Out Of Touch?

Keyboard and mouse users have little reason to celebrate when Microsoft's new OS rolls out. Does that make me a dinosaur?
This post-PC era we've embarked on sure seems to have a lot of PCs in it.

That's what I think every time I'm in a shared space where people do work--coffeehouses, airports, co-working offices, and so forth. Take the coffee joint I visit a couple of times a week. Unlike some spots, people seem to go here to work. Good luck finding a seat if you arrive much after 9 on a weekday morning. They're occupied by salespeople, developers, designers, entrepreneurs, students, and navel-gazing writers. It strikes me as a fairly representative sample of the modern mobile workforce. And although I'm generalizing, they're all using laptops. (Plenty of the laptops are Macs, but that's a different story.)

Sure, there's a smartphone on the table next to every laptop. There are also iPads, though they're less ubiquitous than phones. Yet people are still hunting and pecking, pointing and clicking. The laptop is where people get stuff done.

I find this reassuring. I happen to like the laptop, and that's one of the main things that makes me a little itchy about Windows 8. Microsoft's reboot seems to relegate the keyboard-and-mouse crowd to the cargo hold, while upgrading tablet and other touch device users to first class. Microsoft is not hiding from that, either. The system requirements for the Windows 8 Release Preview say the OS "works great on the same hardware that powers Windows 7." True enough, but a few bullet points down you'll find this note: "To use touch, you need a tablet or a monitor that supports multi-touch."

What about folks more inclined to use a touchpad than a touchscreen? (And what about a mouse? They still make those, right?) I'm not old enough to be a dinosaur, am I?

[ Is it suddenly Apple's turn to catch up? See Windows 8 Beats The Mac, Appsolutely. ]

I actually think the Windows 8 UI looks good. While the app-centric design is a little too consumer-oriented for my tastes, there are many potential business uses in changes like SkyDrive integration. And I'm sure (or at least hope) more business apps will come in due time to balance out the less productive apps. Beyond the UI, InformationWeek readers have also pointed out some compelling reasons why they're excited for Windows 8, such as improved dual monitor support, Storage Spaces, and under-the-hood improvements.

The UI--a major change--is going to cause user disruption in organizations that adopt quickly.

But people can learn a new UI. That's a solvable problem. What's less clear is why I would use an OS that is clearly designed for tablets and other touch-screen devices when I'm not using one of those devices. Maybe that does make me a dinosaur, but it's nice to know I've got some company. "Windows 8 is designed for tablets and smartphones. Makes no sense for a desktop PC to behave like that, sticking with Windows 7 which I am very satisfied with," says one reader, "RichMNY". "BTW, I have a smartphone, happy with this type of interface for this type of device."

I agree. I like the touch interface on my phone; it also makes sense on tablets. I don't get it on the PC. I'm sure over time, more and more people will use touch-screen PCs or laptop-tablet hybrids that include keyboards, particularly once retail stocks are replaced with Windows 8 hardware. But I'm reasonably skeptical that touch PCs will have the same sweeping impact as smartphones and, to a lesser extent, tablets.

You can indeed use Windows 8 with a keyboard and mouse or touchpad. And, as plenty of people have pointed out, you can even roll back the UI to include the familiar Start button if you simply can't bear to live without it. But that indicates to me that the QWERTY crowd is better off sticking with Windows 7 for now.

Responding to Paul McDougall's recent piece on why Windows 8 beats the Mac, reader "JPolk" says: "Microsoft jumped the gun on touch. The bulk of the PC world simply can't use it in the workplace and that's where most of the computing is done." Reader "Paul987" echoes that perspective: "I need a UI that best facilitates that work. And despite the inability of people who presumably don't do that type of work to understand, touch simply isn't optimal for those tasks." Other readers respond with what they are missing with a touch-centric UI on a PC. It's an interesting discussion to check out.

The pre-launch marketing for Windows 8 effectively weighs in with Microsoft's position on that debate. A decidedly consumer-centric video on the Windows 8 release preview site begins with the tagline: "All you need to stay in touch."

It's a nice pun, but I still don't think I get it.