Windows 7? No arm in it

Windows 7? No arm in it

Summary: The first thing I thought of, when watching the video of Windows 7's new multitouch interface was 'oh no, not again'.Not because it looks like the iPhone's interface scaled up (although, with a tedious inevitability, it is), and not because the things it showed off were the sort of things you could do perfectly well with existing user interfaces.

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TOPICS: Emerging Tech
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The first thing I thought of, when watching the video of Windows 7's new multitouch interface was 'oh no, not again'.

Not because it looks like the iPhone's interface scaled up (although, with a tedious inevitability, it is), and not because the things it showed off were the sort of things you could do perfectly well with existing user interfaces.

I'm talking about gorilla arm.

Gorilla arm, for those not involved in user interface design in the 70s, is the shorthand for the discomfort experienced by people who had to use light pens on vertical monitors.

Light pens were light sensors in a pen-shaped holder, connected to the computer by a curly lead. If you held one to a screen, it would send off a signal at the moment the cathode-ray tube dot scanned past, and so it was possible to calculate exactly where on the screen the user was pointing.

Light pens had a lot of things going for them. They were simple, accurate and didn't need much software or modifications to the computer to make them work -- all important factors in the days of tiny RAM and expensive processors. Manufacturers and software designers loved them.

But there was one small snag. The human arm - remember humans? - isn't designed to be held horizontally away from the body for any length of time while making tiny, precise movements. Tasks that took any time to complete, including navigating through menus, soon resulted in aching muscles, stiffness and a swollen feeling -- gorilla arm.

Telegraph operators used to get a similar condition called glass arm from bashing badly-positioned morse keys all day, but they'd long gone by the time computers turned up so nobody remembered. Technology's like that.

However, the epic fail of light pens was so substantial that the phrase gorilla arm came to mean any form of ergonomic cock-up where real life gets in the way of designer dreams. Light pens vanished from the world, and lessons were learned.

And that was that. Until Microsoft thought the best thing to do with the iPhone interface - which lives in a small, thumb-based world in your hand where alternatives don't work - was to put it on the big screen, where none of that is true.

Yes, it might work for tablets - but who uses them? In any case, Microsoft is thinking bigger than that. It even demonstrated the thing on a vertical screen.

As with so many high-profile OS-based MS decisions, the question keeps asking itself: what problem is this trying to solve?

There is talk afoot that Apple is finding itself with increasingly substantial corporate sales, despite not having any form of corporate strategy, because people are so plain fed up with Microsoft that they're swallowing the pain of switching their enterprise IT.

It's probably far less painful than gorilla arm.

Topic: Emerging Tech

Rupert Goodwins

About Rupert Goodwins

Rupert started off as a nerdy lad expecting to be an electronics engineer, but having tried it for a while discovered that journalism was more fun. He ended up on PC Magazine in the early '90s, before that evolved into ZDNet UK - and Rupert evolved with them into an online journalist.

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10 comments
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  • Windows 7? No arm in it

    "what problem is this trying to solve?" they're just trying out cool stuff!
    perhaps the question they should've asked themselves is; why didn't Apple do this? they had the opportunity with the MacBook Air, instead they put just a few of those features on the mousepad.

    Do they do usability testing at Microsoft?
    harpless
  • Windows 7? No arm in it

    I wouldn't blame Microsoft, I'd blame Minority Report. Apparently we all want screens we wave at. The Nintendo Wii is the UI of the future...

    Simon Rockman
  • Windows 7? No arm in it

    When personal computers were new, we all needed them desperately despite cost and hassles, to empower us as individuals. Business and individuals were at the mercy of Microsoft, and had to buy whatever they wished to let us have.

    As the desktop computer has matured, we, the consumers, have choices and can make judgments as to how we want to work and easy to learn and use.

    Microsoft had better quickly learn to offer consumers what they need, what they want...and not just another something that "looks" like what they want and need. More and more people are getting the idea that Microsoft does not listen to what we want, and just doesn't have a clue as to what we need. The market is theirs to lose.
    hardmanb
  • Windows 7? No arm in it

    Micro$oft is only trying to innovate, but they can't seem to understand that they need to use technology the consumer wants. Looks like they want to force you to love what they produce (copy, imitate, borrow, or steal), and be happy. I'm wondering how long it will take them to realize they are no longer the only game in town.
    ator1940
  • Windows 7? No arm in it

    The most interesting aspect of Microsoft's position at the moment is the almost complete disconnect from its customers.
    The size of the problem is nicely illustrated by headlines like <a href="http://www.alleyinsider.com/2008/5/microsoft_windows_7_we_already_hate_it">Microsoft Windows 7? We Already Hate It</a>, which regardless of the facts about W7 -- still unknown -- is a fair reflection of the sentiment of not just febrile journalists, but real people too.

    Even if that is, as Microsoft would undoubtedly claim, a problem of perception, it's a real problem of perception. After Vista, people are fed up of the chasm between the Microsoft spin machine and what they find on their desktops.

    It's reminiscent of an old king, surrounded by sycophantic courtiers, who keeps issuing new and ever more unpopular laws to quieten his rowdy, increasingly rebellious subjects. The laws have the opposite effect, and he complains all the time about the ungrateful peasants, but none of those around him dare tell him what's actually going on.

    rupert.goodwins@...
  • Windows 7? No arm in it

    Two seperate issues really, firstly the whole guerilla arm is a red herring. Think about it, it would cost very little to develop a stand that would allow a screen to be pulled forward and down, and the screen rotated to just over the top of a keyboard. It couldn't be done with a light pen and a CRT but with modern flat screens it can, creating a very pleasant working position.

    So with it being an eminently practical proposition, the only question is why do it? The reason is simple, its how people work. When you walk through a wood and you want to feel the texture of a tree you run your hand across it. You don't have to, you could hold a twig and run that across the bark, it would do the same. People want to feel, to touch things They prefer direct, not indirect contact.

    The keyboard and mouse act as a barrier, sometimes very necessary, but still a barrier. If they aren't needed, why not remove them? I keep thinking of the old argument, why do you need a GUI tool when the same thing can be done with the command line? Because most people can't use it, don't want to use it and shouldn't have to. When I design web pages, I'll often find myself thinking
    richard@...
  • Windows 7? No arm in it

    Our office only upgraded all its CRTs to LCDs within the last 12 months, so anyone who expects us to replace our LCDs with touch- sensitive *anything* in time for Windows 7 (say, 2010) must be dreaming...
    Zogg
  • Windows 7? No arm in it

    I've just spent a long time on the phone to someone trying to help them out with a problem - a process made infinitely harder by them using a GUI instead of a command line. There are plenty of solutions that make certain classes of problem harder...

    As for pointing on screen: yes, for lots of people this is better. My mother has a tablet PC; she never learned to use a typewriter and thus this is a godsend to her. She's just as happy with a mouse, though, and for anything text-based there's absolutely nothing that works nearly as fast as a keyboard.

    Yet this is neither here nor there. We've had touch-capable systems for decades. It's not that nobody thought of using them on PCs - far from it! - but that they never worked particularly well. The only reason Microsoft has revived the idea isn't because it's done some research that's revealed some great secret we've missed all these years -- if it had, then surely it would have demonstrated this -- but because it's Bill Gates' pet and he's rather annoyed that the iPhone is so popular. (I've worked for companies which have been badly damaged by charismatic CEOs having this sort of obsession.)

    But really - it's not impressive, and it's not wanted. And it's not the first time that a MS technology has been <a href="http://www.microsoft.com/windows/smartdisplay/default.mspx">completely off-kilter</a>, no matter what the PR machinery says.


    rupert.goodwins@...
  • Windows 7? No arm in it

    Just to reply to the previous comment. Your first two paragraphs is simply point out things have advantages and disadvantages, which is obvious, and you give an explicit example of the usefulness of touch screen displays. I think any sensible person can agree everything has its good points and its bad points, its costs and its benefits.

    The real substance of your objections comes in your 3rd paragraph, first off you mention we've had touch capable systems for decades and yet in your blog post you give a very clear example of how impractical they were. There is a huge difference between something that is technically possible and what is practical. Most things become technically possible before they become practically possible. Today touch screen for PC's is practical. The real reason is to quote:

    &#8220;...it's Bill Gates' pet and he's rather annoyed that the iPhone is so popular.&#8221;

    It appears that rather than look at this rationally and objectively, as a good journalist should and indeed as I see you do in dialogue box, you've decided to use it as an excuse to attack MS. It would be far better to just state clearly that you think touch screen technology has been put in just to satisfy Gate's person annoyance, rather than pretending it's a technical issue and trying to twist facts to make them fit. After all, it's simply an implementation of surface so it really is no surprise that it's making an appearance in the next windows is it. It would have been amazing if it hadn't.
    richard@...
  • Windows 7? No arm in it

    If it was a relevant use of the technology, I wouldn't care why it was there. It's not relevant use of the technology, so I do care about it. Bill Gates is on record as saying that he's a big proponent of pen/stylus/touch tech, and it's <a href="http://news.cnet.com/8301-10784_3-9956880-7.html">no secret</a> that Surface (let alone the desktop touch screen) has had many detractors within MS.

    As I said, it wouldn't be the first time that a company did something daft because of an obssesive CEO.

    One thing I can't understand, though. Given that the most successful use of touch interfaces is in mobile - how come Microsoft is ignoring that?


    rupert.goodwins@...