Microsoft misses a perfect opportunity for Windows 7 and multitouch

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Here are some observations after having watched Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's Windows 7 rollout, as streamed live from a Soho loft earlier this morning: Although I'm on record as praising Windows 7 (at Vista's expense), Microsoft missed a window here to make its new product more tangible and more interesting to consumers.

We saw plenty of demonstrations today about multitouch, which will at some point be perceived as a key feature of Windows 7 once more people are able to get their hands on it. But the only two routes Microsoft presented this morning were through expensive touch-sensitive TVs (which don't make sense to folks who prefer remote control) and through a new class of PCs that has yet to find a proper form factor, let alone make its way from the factory.

And yet there will be at least some multitouch-ready applications, mostly derived from that ancient photo gallery demo we first saw prior to the release of Vista. But if Microsoft truly wanted to make multitouch the talk of the town...since it is also in the peripherals business, one wonders why the company didn't think to make even an early class of Windows 7-ready multitouch pads available for the everyday consumer.

It wouldn't have had to be much, although something on the order of Apple's multitouch-sensitive zero-button mouse would have been a serious game-changer. Essentially, it could have been a corded USB device that's placed beneath the mouse pad, maybe with suction to the table below. Nothing but a multitouch pad in a frame, plus a bundled way to get the apps (through Windows Live) to make it do something.
Such a device could have been bundled with Windows 7 upgrades in retail stores. Or it could have been a Windows 7 upgrade, for at least one SKU, since there's no real reason anymore to put little software in big boxes unless there's something else in the box.

If customers had had available to them a way to plug in something for under a hundred bucks right now, and see Windows 7 multitouch at work, rather than wait down the road until probably Christmas 2010 when they might be able to afford one of these glossy multitouch devices, then Windows 7 would have been the game changer Microsoft needs it to be, right out of the box. Consumers would have had something they could hold in their hand that demonstrates the gulf between Windows 7 and Vista, rather than a plethora of online reviews from folks who are just now trying Win7 for the first time and proclaiming, "It looks the same to me; I don't see any difference!"

Apple's pre-emptive strike on Tuesday, covered at length by Betanews contributor Joe Wilcox, appeared to me at first to have been a way of evening up the score for just this move by Microsoft, had it actually made that move. Apple's clever way of dressing up its MacBooks so that folks don't notice that more of them are lacking Firewire, is not exactly a game changer by itself. But the zero-button, multitouch-sensitive "Magic Mouse" combined with these elements does evolve Mac's form factor, and gets the product further out there to a broader class of consumers, even while it retains its stake on the premium segment.

Microsoft's response at this point appears to be not to dignify Apple by looking as though it's responding to Apple's challenge. However, I seriously doubt that if Ballmer were to have taken the stage today with one of these devices in his hand, however crude it may have been with respect to what multitouch could eventually become, the first words out of consumers' mouths, or even the second, would have been, "I bet this is all because Apple came out with that cool mouse the other day!"

It would have made the new Apple mouse a non-issue, and it would have made any discussion about Apple declaring war on the year 2009, seem a little inflated in hindsight. Ballmer had been on a run with his newfound ability to convert potentially damaging issues into non-issues, especially with government regulators worldwide, but also in terms of product competition (Office 2010 multi-format support being the best example).

A simple and inexpensive Microsoft multitouch device, even if it were only semi-cool with a few apps to support it, would have rendered anything Apple did earlier this week a non-issue. Ballmer missed his chance.

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