Foley on Microsoft

Getting Touchy About Touch

Memo to Microsoft: New isn't always better.

Whenever I'm critical of some new technolog -- such as multitouch PCs, pervasive-presence functionality or speech input -- I invariably get letters calling for my immediate resignation. You know, comments such as, "Ms. Foley is a dinosaur, a fossil, a relic," and other words I never read in the Bible.

Look, I'll admit it: I'm a Luddite when it comes to some technology "advances." I still don't think Tablet PCs are going to be the form factor of the future. To me, Surface tabletops offer too much complexity for too little added value. And do I really need to stream TV shows to my bedroom, bathroom, cell phone and car?

If a company delivers something that makes me more organized and productive without subjecting me to a prohibitive learning curve, I'm all over it. But just because the touch-centric desk in "Minority Report" looked cool doesn't mean that everyone wants or needs to use their hands to manipulate documents on a pricey Windows 7 touch-enabled PC.

My attitude seems heretical to many in the inner circles of Microsoft. Microsoft is a company hell-bent on proving that it's innovative. Its officials almost never pass up an opportunity to talk about the billions of dollars they're sinking into R&D, the myriad projects the company is tinkering with in its assortment of incubators and labs, and how many patent applications its employees are filing.

There's no question that a tech company must innovate to stay relevant. And there are more than a few innovations I've seen in recent years that I've found compelling. I remember the first time someone showed me how to subscribe to an RSS feed. From the get-go, I could see how RSS would make my life easier and help save me time and effort. I had the same feelings when I saw e-book reading software for the first time. I wasn't a Kindle early adopter, but I'm definitely a potential customer for Kindle 2.0 or some kind of book-reading software that works with a mobile device. And netbooks? For me, a stripped-down, lightweight, cheap PC -- not a cell phone -- is what I want to use for browsing the Web and keeping up with e-mail on the run.

Microsoft execs are fond of playing up all the telemetry data, focus groups, anthropological studies and other user feedback the company employs to develop new products and services. I'm not convinced. Did it really take a village to create the Office 2007 ribbon (which, in spite of Redmond's data to the contrary, still seems to be almost as hated as Microsoft Bob by users with whom I talk)? Is the Windows 7 Superbar truly an advance over the tried-and-true Windows XP user interface, or is it just Microsoft's attempt to ape the Apple OS X dock? While I'm a fan of some of the new features in Internet Explorer 8 (hooray for the "InPrivate" porn mode!), Web slices and accelerators seem more like distractions than time-savers.

Microsoft Researcher Bill Buxton is one of the unabashed believers in pushing the user-experience envelope, as well as a big backer of touch technology. But even in his bullishness, Buxton also is a realist: "My general rule is that everything is best for something and the worst for something else," he wrote in a Web post last year.

If Microsoft developers would step back and realize that an hour's worth of additional battery life may not be as glitzy as a touchscreen PC, yet would significantly improve more people's computing experiences, Redmond's innovations might seem a lot more innovative to the general population.

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She has a new book out, Microsoft 2.0 (John Wiley & Sons, May 2008), about what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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