I know why I keep expecting Microsoft to produce something useful: they periodically manage to pull themselves together and release an Operating System that is a measurable improvement over its predecessors (e.g. the Windows 98 to XP to 7 trajectory). However, for the most part they have a real knack for developing (or buying) a useful concept and then running it into the ground with truly impressive zeal.
The most recent case in point, as far as I’m concerned, is their attempt to (quite literally) bolt together a Kinnect system from the XBox with some kind of a Windows 7 ‘Touch UI’ to create ‘affordable’ table-top computing. It’s nice in theory, since it enables MS to leverage two successful products into — I assume that this is what they are assuming — one über-successful ‘must have’ product. Note, I say ‘in theory’.
Having had the opportunity to play around with one of these systems over the past couple of weeks, I have to say that the practice of using one of these things is not unlike trying to operate a TV remote while wearing mittens. For anyone who, like me, had the joy of using a Windows Mobile 5.x device this will sound all too familiar. Windows Mobile had a nasty habit of assuming that you had a keyboard or stylus handy, which rather undermined its usefulness as a touch-based device.
Well, the Kinnect/Table setup does the exact same thing. And it costs one hell of a lot more than my HTC Touch. The Kinnect system isn’t sensitive enough to tell when you’re hitting icons or scrollbars in particular places (even double clicking to launch apps seems iffy… at the same time as the visual feedback suggests you’ve done exactly that), and the Windows 7 OS hasn’t made any accommodations for the fact that you aren’t using a keyboard and mouse. The touch keyboard that pops out at random intervals is nowhere near sensitive enough, and scrolling has horrible lag-times that mean you almost always miss the target. Moreover, in most apps, scrolling requires you to hit the scrollbar buttons and not, say, put your hand down to move the page around physically.
About the only application I’ve found that uses touch input in anything like an intuitive way is the screensaver. It shows fish. When you touch the surface of the monitor you create waves and the fish scurry for cover. Then the ripples die down and they come back. That’s it. Several grand for an electronic fish tank. If anyone would like, I am hearby volunteering to buy large acquaria, fill them with fish, and leave the top off. You can then watch as the fish scurry for cover when you slap the water. I promise you that I’ll charge less than Microsoft, and I’ll even throw in a towel.
I can’t help but compare this to Apple’s launch of Lion earlier this week. Lion is also quite touch-oriented, and you can do all kinds of pinches and swipes (if you’ve got a recent MacBook Air/MacBook Pro) without any fuss. Moreover, Apple hasn’t lost sight of the fact that fingers are quite bad pointing devices and so all sorts of features make it easier for you to ‘hit’ the target when you’re using their OS. You might not like their UI choices, but you can’t argue with the fact that their systems are fundamentally useable — and fundamentally intuitive — to anyone willing to invest 15 minutes in learning the ropes.
MS, you get another epic fail.