Touchscreens, which have helped to make smartphones the must-have device for most information workers, have generated a more mixed reaction when the technology is deployed on personal computers.
InformationWeek.com reader jqbecker recently said of Windows 8's touchscreen orientation: "Most [small and midsize businesses] are actually doing WORK, not looking up cat videos on the Internet. By work I mean a lot of typing into Word documents, and entering data into spreadsheets."
That sounds like the world I live in, a tad more so than Microsoft's Surface Pro commercial. (Even the coolest offices I've worked in didn't break out into synchronized dance routines.) It also jives with the day-to-day of many of the SMBs I speak with. Their focus is on productivity and profit, even when "cool" is part of the business model. I'd wager that premise extends well into the largest of businesses, too.
[ There are arguments on the other side. Read Windows 8 Doubt: 4 Ways To Sway PC People. ]
That's been a big part of my problem with the touchscreen emphasis evident in Windows 8 and the early looks at Windows Blue. PCs might not be in vogue but they're still core tools for lots and lots of workers, me included. As reader justindunn noted: "Most of us have decades of experience with a mouse and keyboard, and I for one won't give them up for something because it makes me look cool when I am working or presenting material."
I know desktop mode in Windows 8 is a click away. (Google, for one, says the same about the competition.) I know about Classic Shell. I do see upside in Windows 8. But I still see fundamental shortcomings in an OS that prioritizes touch -- an interface native to tablets and smartphones -- on a laptop or desktop.
A counterpoint to my perspective: I'm shortsighted. This is the future of computing. Change is challenging. Adapt or get left behind.
But adaptation should be driven by productive value. Change for the sake of change is as inefficient as a stubborn refusal to try new and better ways of doing things. While I can see applications and uses where a touchscreen PC might someday offer advantages, there are several business-critical areas where I see little benefit. Here are three of them.
1. Long-Form Content Creation
In my case, "long-form content creation" is just a fancy-pants way to say: "writing." It's what I do. As a result, I spend a good chunk of my workday in Word documents and, to a lesser extent, Google Docs. Perhaps a future Office release will reveal innovative new ways to create and edit substantial documents via touch -- rather than simply read and review them, as we do more often on tablets and phones today. We'll see. As someone who earns a living on a keyboard, let's just say those would have to be some pretty phenomenal innovations. Does Windows 8 mean I can't use a keyboard? Of course not, but it does subordinate clicking and clacking to touching and swiping.
Content creation includes a much broader set of jobs and applications -- essentially, we're talking about folks whose job requires generating and modifying large amounts of data in various forms. A reader recently emailed me because she's in the market for a new work PC. An architect, she's unsure whether Windows 8 is a fit for her uses and applications, such as SketchUp and computer-aided design (CAD) software. "I have a hard time envisioning a touch-screen interface out-pacing the mouse/keyboard interface for those kinds of applications," she wrote. "Maybe, but I just need someone to show me how."
Excel remains a mainstay in many businesses. I use Excel quite a bit, too, mainly for managing the administrative necessities of self-employment. My spreadsheets are child's play compared to what some CPAs, finance pros and other number-crunchers are doing. And I can't fathom how a touchscreen PC would help them -- much less Excel wimps like me -- be more productive with spreadsheets. Slicing and dicing rows upon rows of cells and formulas by swiping and "pinching" your fingers? That seems like a nightmare. (If you're a finance or accounting pro and see advantages of using Excel or other applications with a touchscreen, I'd love to hear from you.)
The same might be said of the broader set of accounting and finance platforms that involve the entry and manipulation of vast amounts of numbers and other data. That was one of reader jqbecker's reasons for doubt: "You ever see a [doctor] try to enter patient charts on a touch screen? Too painful to watch. How about an accountant entering data via touch into QuickBooks? Too slow."
3. Custom & Industry-Specific Apps
If homegrown or "legacy" apps cause pain for companies moving from XP to Windows 7, what does that mean for Windows 8 and its UI overhaul?
This is a difficult area to quantify because, by nature, it's comprised of a hodgepodge of custom-built or industry-specific applications, some built forever ago. It's safe to say that few of those apps were developed with touchscreens in mind. Yet plenty of businesses rely on such applications, whether developed in-house or by a third party, and Windows 8 compatibility and support issues can be a cause for caution with the new OS.
No doubt, this also an area of opportunity for touchscreens. I met a home appraiser a while back, for example, who had all but replaced paper and the traditional PC with an iPad running an app developed specifically for his job: assessing the value of a home and the property it sits on. There's a big opportunity for the touch-centric future Windows in those kinds of (very) specific business uses, but there's probably a ways to go before that is reality.
I appreciate all of the thoughtful responses and comments on this topic, whether they agree, disagree or are somewhere in between. Keep them coming.