There's a reason why the first thing in Windows 7 that Microsoft chose to show publicly was its support for touch input.
That built-in ability to use two fingers to rotate, scroll and zoom offers tangible proof that the operating system is different from its predecessor, not to mention being something not found on a Mac.
However, many say that comparatively few Windows 7 PC owners will actually be reaching out to touch their screen. That's because, to use one's fingers in such a manner requires a screen that can support the technology — something that often adds US$100 or more to the cost of a PC.
As a result, many expect touch-capable computers to be just a tiny fraction of the market for desktop and notebook computers, even after Windows 7 arrives on store shelves in October.
"We're thinking like 5 per cent to 10 per cent of shipments for 2010," said IDC analyst Richard Shim. And Shim said that, unless circumstances change, the rate isn't likely to climb significantly in the coming years.
Part of the problem is that there really isn't a killer application for touch on the PC, despite the fact that putting ones fingers on the screen has become the de facto measure of cool in the mobile phone market.
It's not that there isn't interest in selling touchscreen devices. Hewlett-Packard introduced its TouchSmart all-in-one in 2007. The company now has several touch models, including both desktop and notebook machines. Dell has a Latitude notebook aimed at businesses and has also added an all-in-one with a touchscreen option.
And once Windows 7 hits the market, others will no doubt follow suit, particularly since Microsoft has done a lot of the work. Shim said he expects nearly all the major PC makers to have at least one touchscreen model when Windows 7 launches in Q4. Monitor makers are also expected to offer touchscreen displays that can plug into standard PCs.
"Touch will roll out," Microsoft senior vice president Bill Veghte said in an interview last week. "We'll see it in all-in-ones and we'll see it in some laptops and you will see it across the different PC markets."
But just how many of these models will actually get sold is another matter. Some reports suggest that the low-cost netbook market could actually see things pick up fastest, given their smaller (and therefore cheaper to touch-enable) screens and the fact that people are often using them on the go, without a mouse.
Although Microsoft offers a standard interface for gestures in Windows 7, there are really several different technologies that computer makers can use to build a touch-capable computer.
New Zealand-based NextWindow uses an optical technology in which tiny sensors are mounted on the top corners of the display and allow the fingers' positions to be captured. It is the company behind the technology used in the all-in-ones from HP and Dell.
Israel's N-Trig, meanwhile, uses capacitive resistance, the type of technology used on the iPhone to read finger input. It combines this with a second technology to also allow input from a stylus. Its technology is employed in HP and Dell laptops, and N-Trig has also received funding from Microsoft.
N-trig's dual-mode digitiser allows for both pen and touch input, and is used in laptops from HP and Dell.(Credit: N-trig)
NextWindow's technology doesn't require a special coating or film on the glass, so its screens can look as bright as non-touch displays. However, because it adds a certain depth to the screen, it isn't as suited today to the notebook market.
Touch is not an entirely new notion for Windows, although Windows 7 is the first to support using two fingers at the same time. In the early days of Vista's development, when it was still code-named Longhorn, Microsoft envisioned the tablet PC market expanding to include touch-enabled devices.
"I'm not sure that it ever delivered on that promise," said NextWindow CEO Al Monro. "There really weren't any of the (software makers) that got behind it."
Although that continues to be a challenge, Monro notes that the market has changed considerably — most notably with the introduction of Apple's iPhone.
"That really brought touch into the mainstream," Monro said.
It also broke down a psychological barrier, Monro said, the notion that computer screens were something to avoid getting one's fingers on. NextWindow has its origins making large touchscreen displays for things like retail kiosks. Not too long ago, he said, the company had to put signs near its installations that said "I'm a touchscreen. Touch me".
"You had to really scream it out," he said. "Now people just expect it."
The question now is whether software makers on the PC side will embrace touch interfaces in the way that those who design software for the iPhone have done.
As is often the case with new technology, it's sort of a chicken-and-egg problem, Monro acknowledges. Software makers don't take the time to adopt touch interfaces because not enough touchscreen PCs are sold, while the PCs are a tough sell because there is not enough software.
Monro said he still doesn't have a good feel when that cycle will break. "People aren't going to buy touchscreen unless there are a range of things (they can do)."
For its part, Microsoft has done a couple of things. By supporting touch at the operating system level, most applications should allow touch control of at least basic functions such as resizing windows, scrolling and moving the cursor.
The company has also created a "touch pack" that computer makers can include on their systems. The software collection includes some casual games as well as small applications that have proved popular in Microsoft's other multi-touch computer — its tabletop Surface machine for restaurants, hotels and attractions.
Monro also disputes the idea that there needs to be one killer application. Rather, he said, what the industry needs is for a variety of software makers to take the plunge. Mapping, painting and even social networking can all be better, he said.
"There are just going to be a variety of things that are easier to do with touch," he said.