[bold]Surprisingly, touchscreen laptops don't suck[/bold]
[italic]How Windows 8 challenged the 'gorilla arm' — and won[/italic]
With Windows 8, touchscreens are more relevant than ever before. However, some pundits have long believed that a touchscreen simply doesn't belong on a laptop. Sometimes, they quote Steve Jobs. "Touch surfaces don't want to be vertical." That's Jobs in 2010, telling the world why Apple notebooks wouldn't feature the technology.
"You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those things are probably not gonna be pleasing to the user." That one's from Tim Cook earlier this year, explaining the company's stance on convertible tablet PCs.
These were the opinions of the leaders of the most profitable tech company in the world. I believed them myself. And yet somehow, neither of them have kept me from instinctively, repeatedly touching the screen of my MacBook Air this month.
I review laptops for The Verge, and recently I've been using a string of Windows 8 touchscreen computers. I was prepared for disappointment from day one — prepared to say that while certain Windows 8 gestures are easier with a touchscreen, the overall idea isn't very good. I was prepared to write that the Windows 8 interface was forcing unnecessary touchscreen controls on people who wouldn't appreciate them, particularly if they were simply grafted onto a traditional laptop.
But the more I've used Windows 8, despite its faults, the more I've become convinced that touchscreens are the future — even vertical ones.
When Steve Jobs decried touchscreen laptops in 2010, he was merely relaying the common wisdom of decades of user experience research into "gorilla arm syndrome." Simply put, it's the idea that if you hold out your arm in front of a touchscreen for an extended period of time, it's not going to be particularly comfortable. However, that assumes an awful lot — what if you're not holding your arms out in space waiting to touch things, but resting them comfortably on a keyboard?
We've been looking at this all wrong. A touchscreen isn't a replacement for a keyboard or mouse, it's a complement. If I want to type things on my laptop and have enough room to comfortably open that clamshell and stretch out my arms, the keyboard's still my best bet. I'm not going to touch-type 70 words per minute on a touchscreen keyboard. But when I'm in the cramped quarters of a train, plane, or standing in a line — say, when the only thing standing between a critical email and its recipient is a few dozen words and a tap of the button marked "Send" — I can grab that Windows 8 laptop by its hinged section, one hand on either side of the screen, and tap out that message with my thumbs.
Perhaps that's an extreme example, though. Even in everyday use, I find myself touching the screens of computers (whether they have touchscreens or not) because I can do things faster and more intuitively.
If you want to launch a program on your desktop, which makes more sense? Reach down to a special glass surface and drag a finger across it just long enough to land a floating pointer arrow on top of the icon, and then tap? Or simply reach up to a visible icon and tap it? Why try to aim that pointer at a little X icon, or remember keyboard shortcuts like Alt-F4, when I can just swipe down from the top of the screen to close a Windows 8 program? Why painstakingly zoom a web browser in 10 percent increments using a disembodied keyboard or trackpad when you can smoothly manipulate it between your fingers with pinch-to-zoom? I now find myself doing, or at least wishing I could do, these things all the time.