I found myself touching the screen during a few primary tasks. If I pulled up a long article on the Web and sat back to read, I’d sometimes reach for the screen to scroll down rather than hit the keyboard or flick at the track pad. I did the same when I was flipping through photos. Windows 8 has two completely different interfaces—a traditional “desktop” mode in which you click on small icons to launch programs that run in multiple windows on your screen (i.e., the Windows we all know and love), and a “modern” mode in which apps occupy the full screen and feature large, touch-friendly buttons. When I used this second mode, I found myself touching more often—to browse Amazon or Netflix, to read the news, or to play games.
You may have spotted a pattern there: I tended to touch for leisure activities, and I’d stick to the keyboard and track pad when doing work. But this wasn’t by design, and I only discerned the leisure-vs.-work behavior when I thought about it later. Indeed, while using these touch laptops, the touching became intuitive and invisible. I flitted among the screen, the track pad, and the keyboard from moment to moment without ever having to think about it.
I didn’t expect to take to touching my PC. The conventional criticism against adding touch to laptops is that it’s unnatural. When you use a laptop, your hands usually rest on the keyboard, which is relatively far from the screen; from that position it’s easier to reach for the track pad than the display. The other problem is what’s on the screen. On a PC—even a Windows 8 machine with an interface specifically designed for touch—there are lots of small controls that are better handled with a precise pointer than your fat finger. For instance, to close a tab in the Chrome browser, you’ve got to hit a little X next to the tab’s title. I’d often miss that X when I tried to hit it with my finger. That was a bit frustrating—although after a few times making that mistake, I learned to stop trying to close tabs with my finger, and then I didn’t get annoyed anymore.
This gets to why Apple hasn’t added touch to the Mac. While it’s mostly handy, sometimes touching your PC’s screen results in an annoying experience. And it’s just not Apple’s way to build a new feature that’s sometimes annoying (well, OK, other than in iTunes, Maps, Siri … ). Thus, to do it right, giving a MacBook a touch screen wouldn’t just require a small hardware upgrade to the screen—Apple would also have to reimagine its OS, redesigning it so that every element could be controlled as easily with your fingers as with a pointer. Microsoft solved this problem by building a touch-friendly interface that sits alongside the old Windows’ point-and-click interface, but I don’t think Apple would go for that—it feels too tacked-on and inelegant. Apple would have to do something bigger and more ambitious than that. But why should it? Considering that the Mac is an ever-smaller part of its revenues, and that Apple firmly believes that PCs will be eclipsed by tablets anyway, it has little incentive to make the Mac touch-friendly. Thus, for the foreseeable future, we’re likely to be stuck with touch-less Macs. (Indeed, CEO Tim Cook came close to ruling them out in a conference call with investors last year.)
And that’s too bad. Last month I spoke to Tami Reller, Microsoft’s chief marketing officer for the Windows division, and Aidan Marcuss, a principal director for Windows Research, at the company’s San Francisco office. On their trip from Redmond, Wash., Reller and Marcuss had brought along several touch-enabled Windows 8 laptops, which they described as being the future of computing.
“For consumers—for mainstream laptops—they’ll be increasingly all be touch,” Reller told me. This wasn’t an idle prediction. Reller’s position was bolstered by data. Throughout the development of Windows 8, Microsoft has been tracking anonymous usage data from people’s computers. It has now collected more than 1.2 billion hours of data—more than 700 centuries—about how people use Windows 8. And the data is definitive: It shows that when people are given PCs with touch screens, they use them.
“We see it very clearly in the data,” Marcuss said. “People with touch laptops touch the screen. They reach out, they touch it, and over time they touch it more. They intersperse typing and touching quite a bit. It makes them more efficient in many of the things they want to do—for instance, in the very simple use case of flipping through a PowerPoint presentation. The data supports it. People do it.”
Soon, you too will be reaching out and touching your laptop—unless it’s a Mac.
Correction, Feb. 28, 2013: This article originally misspelled the name of the HP Pavilion TouchSmart.