Windows 7: The OS that launches a thousand touch-screen PCs?

More PC makers are announcing Windows 7 machines that use touch screens

Apple Inc. may still be coy about whether it plans to launch a touch-screen tablet computer this year, but Windows PC makers are forging right ahead.

In the past three weeks, five leading PC makers have announced or been reported to confirm plans to release touch-screen PCs running Windows 7, which will provide built-in multitouch features, as well as enable touch applications written for it.

These five companies would join the two largest PC makers in the world, which began rolling out touch PCs before Windows 7: Dell Inc., which sells the touch-screen-enabled Studio One all-in-one consumer desktop, and Hewlett-Packard Co., which has led the way with touch-screen PCs since it introduced its first TouchSmart computer in January 2007.

The latest entrants include the following:

These PC makers together control more than 60% of the global computer market.

In addition, NextWindow Ltd. said Wednesday that its optical touch-screen overlays, which are already used to touch-enable Dell's and HP's PCs, are being adopted by a number of PC and monitor makers for forthcoming all-in-one PCs running Windows 7.

"We've got eight to 10 projects that we expect to go into mass production in the next one to two months," said Al Monro, CEO of the Auckland, New Zealand-based company, in an interview. He declined to name NextWindows' customers.

NextWindow, which supplied 400,000 touch-screen PC overlays last year and expects to supply a million this year, is one of the largest vendors in the optical touch-screen market, along with Taiwanese hardware vendor Quanta Computer Inc., which is rumored to be building a touch-screen tablet PC for Apple.

Optical touch is only one of six major types of touch-screen technology on the market today, according to Monro. The iPhone, for instance, uses projected capacitive technology, while touch-enabled cash registers typically use resistive film or infrared.

NextWindow mounts two sensors at the top of a screen that view a thin layer of light beamed across the monitor's surface. The sensors then detect when and where a finger or stylus is pressing down and blocking the light.

Despite the plethora of coming models, not everyone is bullish in the short term. Only about 1% of the notebook market, or 1.4 million PCs, were touch-enabled in 2008, according to research firm IDC. As the notebook market booms, the percentage of touch-enabled models will actually shrink to 0.6% this year, and remain at 0.7% in 2010, IDC said.

That doesn't affect NextWindow, whose customers are building all-in-one desktop PCs or LCD monitors, not laptops, netbooks or tablets, Monro said.

NextWindow's optical touch is particularly suited for desktop monitor-size touch screens, in the range of 17 to 24 inches, for three reasons, Monro said: cost, image clarity and flexibility (users can use a finger, a hard or soft stylus, or even a paintbrush).

But Monro acknowledged that there are potential stumbling blocks for touch to take off with Windows 7. Vendors might price touch-enabled PCs too high to attract consumers, he said. Also, Windows 7 hasn't generated a huge wave of touch-enabled applications.

There is a need for "some really cool [touch] apps put out by Google, Facebook, Adobe or Microsoft" running on Windows 7, Monroe said. "So far, it's mostly smaller ISVs."

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