Can Microsoft close the app gap with Apple's iPad?

Microsoft and its partners have been shipping Tablet PCs for nearly a decade. And yet when the Apple iPad ships in a few months it will do a much better job of implementing those features than any of Microsoft's partners have done so far. Why? Because Apple understands something that Microsoft has yet to figure out: Apps matter. Here's what Microsoft has to do to catch up.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor
Update 1-Feb, 3:30PM PST: This post has been revised since its initial publication. See the note at the end of the post for details. I've owned a succession of Tablet PCs over the past roughly seven years, nearly as long as they've been around. In fact, I'm composing this post on a Dell Latitude XT2 running Windows 7. That hardware/software combo supports multi-touch in addition to accepting input from a pen. So when Apple announced the iPad last week, I looked at it from a slightly different perspective than most. It's clear that Apple has also been looking carefully at the technologies that Microsoft has been refining for the past decade, and I can confidently predict that Apple will do a much better job of implementing those features than any of Microsoft's partners have done so far. Why? Because Apple understands something that Microsoft has yet to figure out: Apps matter. Nearly eight years after its introduction, the Tablet and touch technology in Windows is nothing short of spectacular, especially the parts that recognize handwritten input. And yet it's still nearly impossible to assemble a full suite of Windows apps that were designed to work well on a touch-enabled PC. In a few months, when iPads are actually shipping, we'll all be able to compare the two platforms for ourselves. Meanwhile, we can look at what Apple has announced and what it has already accomplished with the iPod Touch and iPhone and make some pretty easy projections. I certainly hope that Microsoft and its partners are already doing exactly that. On its iPad Features page, Apple goes to great pains not to refer to Tablet PCs at all. The introductory text is circumspect, in fact, immodestly asserting that "you can do things with these apps that you can’t do on any other device." But if you look at the metadata for that page, you see a more pointed comparison: "With its revolutionary Multi-Touch screen, and its ability to run thousands of apps, iPad can do thousands of things a tablet PC or e-reader can’t." Like I said, apps matter. Tablet and touch features in Windows 7 are secondary to the underlying OS, and developers have been consistently ignoring them for years. Even today, apps that are built on the latest Microsoft technology, like the Seesmic Look client for Twitter, are blissfully unaware of touch features. On my Tablet PC, I can call on a handful of apps that work reasonably well with touch gestures. Internet Explorer 8 is exemplary, with support for two-finger panning, scrolling with simple flick gestures, and resizing of photos and web pages with the now-familiar pinch gesture. The Office 2010 beta is also fully touch- and ink-aware, especially OneNote, which could be the centerpiece of any slate PC. Amazon's beta release of the Kindle for PC app allows you to turn pages easily with gestures, although it doesn't allow for ink annotations.

Windows Media Center, with its large buttons and simple full-screen interface, is a showcase app on a PC that uses a slate form factor. You can scroll through its main menu with the swipe gesture and navigate with gestures through your media library.

Those exceptions aside, most built-in Windows programs are inadequate on a touch-enabled platform. Many third-party apps don't work well on a touch-enabled PC either. Google Chrome, for example, has no support for any touch features, even though its minimalist interface would be ideal. Firefox and Safari do a much better job of recognizing gestures. The popular TweetDeck client for Twitter is also frustrating to use on a Tablet or touch-enabled PC. The only way to navigate through columns is using tiny scroll bars that are nearly impossible to hit accurately with a normal-sized finger. So what Apple is doing right with the iPad is insisting that the only apps you'll be able to install will be those that are designed from Day 1 with full multi-touch support, either for the iPad itself, as Apple is doing with its base software package, or for the iPhone and iPod Touch. On the PC platform, companies like HP and Dell are trying to cope with the app gap by including their own touch-enabled software for new consumer PCs. I've been using an HP TouchSmart and a Dell Studio One for several months now and will have more to say about both companies' approaches later this month. But they shouldn't have to do that. Microsoft should already have a full suite of touch-enabled apps for work and play. If I were making a list of what should be in any new slate PC powered by Windows, it would include the following:

  • A touch-optimized browser. IE8 is a good start. Now get rid of the unnecessary window frames and add some navigation features that make sense for someone who doesn't have a mouse handy.
  • An e-reader that works with multiple book formats.
  • A great media player. Again, Windows Media Center already has just about everything a slate PC needs.
  • A touch interface for Windows Live. Windows Live Mail and Windows Live Photo Gallery are both excellent programs. What if you could select an alternate interface, with larger buttons, less window dressing, and a pop-up toolbar for editing tasks?
  • An easy connector for digital cameras and Bluetooth devices.
  • A file sync utility that allows you to copy and move files (especially digital music and photos) to and from other PCs and mobile devices.
The killer feature that Tablet PCs have for me is the ability to enter handwritten notes in programs like OneNote and to use handwriting as an alternative to input from a virtual keyboard. What I'd really love to see for the next generation of Windows PCs is a set of universal navigation tools that make it easy to start and switch between programs. The Windows 7 taskbar works great on a PC with a wide screen and a mouse, but it's not so fun in portrait mode when program icons spill over into a second or third row. And I hope Microsoft is working on these improvements now, because you know that Apple is already working on their second-generation iPad.

Update: This post has been revised since its initial publication, in which I erroneously criticized Windows Media Center for its lack of touch-screen support. You can indeed use gestures with Windows Media Center in Windows 7, as I have ascertained with additional testing. It didn't work when I tried previously, which might have been an issue with the drivers or the hardware. But as Microsoft's Charlie Owen noted in the comments below, the Media Center team invested a great deal of effort in making touch features work with Media Center and they deserve credit for that effort and the excellent results. My apologies for the original error.

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