Clueless at Microsoft?

Mark Lennihan

Among computer geeks of a certain age Microsoft has long been synonymous with the word evil. I think that's giving the brass at Microsoft a little too much credit. To me, they're just clueless.

Witness this story in today's Wall Street Journal, "Microsoft Betting Big on 'Touch'", about how Microsoft is the largest investor in the latest, $24 million round of fundraising for an Israeli company that makes touch-screen computer hardware, and how it's integrating the software for touch-screen PCs into Windows 7, the successor to the debacle known as Vista.

Admittedly, a chunk of $24 million is a pittance to a company like Microsoft, probably less than they spend in a year on pens and toilet paper. That said, the article makes it sound as though they expect touch-screen PCs to be the next big thing with the potential to at least partially displace the mouse.

That's simply not gonna happen. I'm not the most tech savvy guy in the universe, but I do spend most of my life sitting in front of a computer. And from my perspective in front of the monitor, it's completely obvious that touch-screen PCs will never be more than a niche market.

Whenever anyone writes about touch-screen computers or the "end" of the mouse, like this piece in the Journal, they always roll out the success of the iPhone as evidence that touch-screen computers could be next. That's the kind of reasoning by bad analogy that sounds convincing until you think about how people actually use technology. A smartphone is not a computer. I love Apple and I love my iPhone, but it's not the herald of a touch-screen revolution.

On an old-fashioned cell-phone you push buttons with numbers and letters on them. With a touch-screen phone, you're tapping a screen with numbers and letters on it. The touch-screen is just a cooler and more efficient way of doing things on a smart-phone.

Not so with a computer. The mouse is here to stay because, with the exception of a very limited number of applications, replacing it with a touch-screen is not an improvement. If anything it makes things less efficient.

Consider this: the monitor on my laptop is 15 inches wide. My track-pad is maybe 3 inches wide. But I can swipe my finger across 3 inches of pad and have the pointer move across 15 inches of screen, and that's with a lousy track-pad, not even a real mouse. With a touch-screen I'd have to move my whole arm across the face of the computer just to drag and drop something. It's just simply geometry.

And don't forget, all the neat things that you can do with a touch screen, like using your fingers to pinch or scroll, you can already do using the multi-touch trackpads on Apple's latest line of Macbook laptops. It's just like having a touch-screen, only it's smaller and easier to use! If the era of the mouse is indeed over, then that's only because Apple has designed a track-pad that's more convenient to use than a mouse.

But even if touch-screen computers turn out to be more user-friendly than the good-old-fashioned mouse, that doesn't mean they'll come close to displacing it. Everyone who's learned how to use a computer in the last 25-years has learned how to do it with a mouse. There's an entire generation of people for whom pointing and clicking with a mouse comes more naturally than writing with a pen. Once something becomes that widespread and conventional, it's very difficult to displace.

Just look to your left at your keyboard. The QWERTY design was adopted in early type-writers, not because it made for faster typing, but because it forced typists to go more slowly. The oldest type-writers would jam up and break if you typed too quickly, so their designers deliberately ordered the keys in a way that made typing more difficult. Eventually type-writers could handle faster speeds, but at that point everybody was familiar with the QWERTY design and replacing it would have forced everyone to relearn how to type.

The mouse and trackpad have become just as conventional as the QWERTY keyboard. Touch-screen computers are definitely cool, but people aren't going to relearn how to use the PC with an interface that's less user-friendly than the current one.

I don't expect the executives at Microsoft to understand any of this, though. They didn't grow up with PCs. They didn't know how to use a mouse when they were in pre-school. So when they see the success of the iPhone, they make a superficial connection with touch-screen computers and think it makes a lot of sense. It doesn't. Steve Ballmer should just go ahead and fire everyone over the age of, say, 35, and let people who really understand how computers are used run the show.

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