Can a touch-screen interface turn Windows around?

It's no secret that Windows Vista hasn't seen the warm reception Microsoft had hoped. With Windows 7, the company is placing its bets on a multi-touch interface -- like the iPhone UI for PCs. Could it change the public mood?

At The Wall Street Journal's 6th D: All Things Digital conference in Carlsbad, California Wednesday night, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and CEO Steve Ballmer offered up a "small snippet" of the next version of Windows after Ballmer acknowledged that he wants to "do better" than Vista. A video showed how Microsoft is bringing the touch technology from its Surface table-tops to standard laptops and desktops.

Users will be able to manipulate objects with their fingertips: for instance, organizing and zooming in on pictures, or drawing in MS Paint. The entire Windows interface will be designed around the touch concept, with a larger taskbar to accommodate bigger icons. For now, however, Microsoft is simply showing off examples of how the technology could potentially be used.

The brief demonstration followed a carefully orchestrated marketing push Wednesday morning, in which Microsoft talked publicly about Windows 7 for the first time -- without actually saying very much. The company did state the next release will not be a major overhaul to Windows with a new kernel.

But Windows users care more about the outside than what goes behind the scenes in the code, and that's where Microsoft hopes it can innovate once again and change the way people interact with PCs, much like it did with Windows 95.

"Touch is quickly becoming a common way of directly interacting with software and devices," wrote Windows product manager Chris Flores in a blog post timed to coincide with the D demo. "Touch-enabled surfaces are popping up everywhere including laptop touch pads, cell phones, remote controls, GPS devices, and more. What becomes even more compelling is when this experience is delivered to the PC -- on a wide variety of Windows notebooks, in all-in-one PC's, as well as in external monitors."

This isn't the first time Microsoft has made grand plans to change the way customers work with future versions of Windows.

In 2003, it introduced a new file system called WinFS that was supposed to do away with the traditional concept of file and folder hierarchy for storing data. Instead, data would be organized by type and accessed as needed by the applications; for example, Word would simply list all of the .DOC files stored in WinFS, and the user wouldn't need to bother saving them to folders on a hard drive.

But the effort proved too bold, and WinFS was scrapped prior to the release of Vista. Part of the problem was application support: Microsoft needed developers to make its programs compatible with WinFS. The company faces the same challenge with the multi-touch interface for Windows 7, and has already begun working with hardware and software vendors.

In the video demonstration, the Windows 7 touch interface is used on a Dell Latitude XT laptop and Tyco Electronics Elo touch monitor.

Neither Gates nor Ballmer offered a specific date as to when customers would actually have this technology in their hands, but said Windows 7 should arrive in early 2010. That indicates beta testing could begin later this year, although a lack of touch-screen devices could slow widespread trials of the new interface.

Watch video highlights from the Gates and Ballmer keynote at D6

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