Opinion: Now the touchscreen needs better apps

Steve Jobs famously said we are in a post-PC era. It is fair to say the PC is still alive and well, but the design, form factors, and operating systems are trying to keep up with the times. Nothing proves this point more clearly than the big announcements we heard from Microsoft and Apple at recent events. What I found most interesting was the two very stark differences between each company’s approach to touch. First, let’s look at the offerings.

Microsoft: All touch, plus any input device

On October 26, Microsoft announced their latest lineup of Surface products. Here is a video for their new Surface Book i7:

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Microsoft even announced a new category of product, called the Surface Studio:

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Along with these product announcements, Microsoft took the lid off their Windows 10 Creators Update.

Microsoft is sending an important message: If you want to create, use our products. Microsoft is smart to push this concept. Surface products run a full copy of Windows so you can run Office, Adobe products, or any other desktop application.

The Surface products can disconnect from the keyboard and switch to a full-screen mode and acts more like a tablet. Useful in tablet mode is a pen that allows you do draw, markup documents, and take notes.

The Surface Studio is Microsoft’s answer to creators that need a giant, hi-def screen to create content in ways you may not have tried before. You can use your fingers or a pen to draw and craft new designs. A new dial input device allows you to do things like change colors and settings in the app while you are still drawing. The dial promises to reduce the time you spend fidgeting with the user interface in an app.

Apple: Touch is in the bar

Unlike Microsoft, certain MacBook Pro’s get a little Touch Bar, replacing the function keys.

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Of course, Apple still offers iPad and iPhone with full touchscreen capabilities, but the MacBook Pro has never offered a touchscreen in their lineup. Now, they [sort of] do with the Touch Bar.

Microsoft: Touchscreens on everything

Microsoft wants you to use touch technologies anytime you want. Typing on a screen and want to move a window with your finger? No problem. Want to quickly circle and underline a few things with a digital pen? Do it in laptop or tablet modes.

When Microsoft released this technology in their first wave, they used the term no compromises, which to me, translated to lots of compromises. With Windows 8, Microsoft was quite literally trying to remove windows from Windows. Their universal apps, lack of support on non-Intel chipsets, and lack of fully-baked touchscreen apps was disappointing and felt like a failure.

With Windows 10, Microsoft decided to take a more accommodating approach by just switching apps to full-screen and, when available, enable touchscreen modes if you switched to a tablet mode. They are still pushing for developers to write Universal apps, so you still have some compromises.

Good touch-enabled apps assume there will never be a physical mouse, keyboard, or other external devices. So-called touch-first app developers think about what a brand new user interface looks like for their products. It is rare to find a professional touch-only app that has a laundry list of tabs and icons horizontally laid out across the top of the screen. Instead, you use gestures, and access features in a way that is less disruptive to your workflow.

In some ways, I think Microsoft’s attempt to use a universal app approach means developers need to compromise. Writing an app for all sorts of form factors and usage scenarios could hinder creativity and will probably increase software development and testing time.

On the other hand, creating content in Windows is easy. I have tried creating PowerPoint decks on Microsoft’s Surface devices and iPads. The fact is, it just takes way too long — and painful — for me to use a touch-based version. Pro apps like PowerPoint, Word, and Excel might run on a touch device, but the keyboard and mouse are the tools that make you most productive.

If Satya Nadella told their creative designers and engineers to completely re-imagine what PowerPoint would look like assuming only two fingers were available as the input, I wonder what that product would look like. I bet it would be cool, useful, and maybe even fun to use.


Apple: Touchscreens, where applicable

Apple was the first notable company to fully embrace touchscreens as its only input method. I remember watching the keynote and being blown away by the functionality, but thought the iPhone a bit of a joke because there was no physical keyboard. It was not until I saw a friend using the very first Facebook app and quickly sending messages that I realized I did not want an iPhone but needed an iPhone. It turns out I never missed the keyboard, and the amazing new categories of apps made me more productive in my personal life. That level of productivity on my iPhone stopped when it came to creating content, which is mostly what I do.

Composing emails, sending texts, and making social media updates is the extent I use my iPhone for content creation. Anything else I do on a computer. Why am I not using my iPad for work? Well, I want a mouse and keyboard for nearly everything. The iPad is powerful, and I use it when I want to get creative on a few apps, but mostly I use it to play games and watch movies.

If you want the touchscreen experience on a MacBook, the only option you have is the new MacBook Pro with their brand new Touch Bar. From what I have seen, this seems like a nifty innovation and shows Apple’s keen interest in keeping touchscreens to their iOS devices and not their computers (or not yet anyway?).

Touchscreen vs. Touch Bar

I think Apple is onto something with the Touch Bar. Apple is focusing on productivity, and I believe they’re going in the right direction. For example, if you run a photos app, you can use the touch bar to scroll through the list of photos. If you are looking at an individual photo, then the touch bar allows you to crop, rotate, or recolor the image.

Working with Photoshop is something I have to do on a daily basis. I am not a designer or an artist, but it has become a product I use for my articles and books every day. I watched Adobe show how the Touch Bar will remove a lot of clicks and keyboard shortcuts so I believe this little bar will be of great interest to so-called power users.

This got me to thinking about the differences between Microsoft and Apple’s approaches. With the Touch Bar, you get a productivity boost. If you run Photoshop on a Surface Pro and then go into tablet mode, you still have the same clicks and actions, but it might be a little more difficult to use. Then again, if you want to draw in Photoshop, you can grab your pen and get going.

No one option is better than the other

The promise of a keyboard-less, mouse-less, and pen-less computer is certainly not here yet. There have been valiant attempts by Microsoft and Apple to make their products more touch-centric. I applaud these efforts and think both of these companies have some winning ideas.

Right now, I am sold on Apple’s vision for the iPhone and the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar. For me, I have not found the iPad to be all that useful and if I’m going to buy a pen and keyboard, then why not just buy a full-blown computer?

For Microsoft, I am sold that creative people and especially engineers are going to flock to the Surface Studio. The Surface Pro is great as an all-in-one, but in this writer’s humble opinion, I think Microsoft needs to rethink touch and re-imagine their apps for the next ten years as touchscreens proliferate the computing landscape. I don’t believe the answer is just a decision between floating windows and full-screen windows.

In Lord of the Rings, the dragon Smaug slept in his money, never doing much of anything for years. Then, when people came for him, he changed his attitude. Microsoft is Smaug right now. They are up against stiff competition but are showing they can still innovate at a fast pace and are finally giving Apple a run for the money. I look forward to seeing who creates the next touchscreen experience that will have a profound impact on how we create content.

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