Why touch is killing Windows 8 apps

At his keynote speech at the BUILD conference today, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer hyped how important touch is to Windows and the future of computing. But because of Microsoft's reliance on touch, Microsoft and others have dumbed down Windows 8 apps so that many are barely useful.

There's no doubt that Windows 8 apps -- now often called Modern apps -- are pretty to look at. And it certainly is fun and satisfying to swipe to your heart's content. But whether by design or accident, touch has hamstrung many apps. Those apps could be much more powerful if Microsoft designed dual interfaces into the same app, a simple one for touch, and a richer one for keyboard and mouse. You might accomplish 80% of what you want with the touch interface, and the remaining 20% with the keyboard.

Internet Explorer is a case in point. In the Modern version, you can't even bookmark sites. All you can do is pin them to the Start screen. If you want to bookmark lots of sites into multiple categories, you're in trouble, because it can't be done. (Note that I haven't yet tested the version of IE built into Windows 8.1.)

The desktop version, of course, lets you do all the bookmarking you want. So why not build a single app that automatically shape-shifts according to whether you're using touch or a keyboard and mouse?

The problem here really isn't touch. The problem is the way that Microsoft has deployed touch -- dumbing down apps so that they can be touch-only. Imagine an app with the ease of touch and the power of the keyboard and mouse, depending how you're using it at any particular moment. That would truly unlock the power of Windows 8 and the underlying hardware.

But Microsoft hasn't done that. Look at Microsoft's recommended design specs for touch on Windows 8 apps and you won't find any mention of a possible dual interface. It's also not found on the complete index of user interface guidelines for Windows 8 apps.

It's time for the dumbing-down to end. Windows 8 apps shouldn't be hemmed in by a purely touch interface. It's time for a dual, self-sensing interface, one that adjusts itself to how the device is currently being used. Until that happens, Windows 8 apps will remain so-so also-rans.

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