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Will Microsoft's 'Minority Report' UI leap-frog Apple?

Microsoft announced last week that Windows 8 will offer a user interface more advanced than multitouch

November 29, 2011 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - Five years ago, all of the major U.S. operating system makers were planning to own the future of the PC user interface. That future was the multitouch UI, which relies on gestures and physics to create a satisfying touchy-feely replacement for clunky keyboards and mice.

In 2007, that new interface hit in a big way. Microsoft shipped Surface. Apple shipped the iPhone. And Google shipped Android.

Though Microsoft was first to market, I'm giving Apple the nod as the multitouch pioneer. The iPhone and iPad have done more to bring multitouch interfaces to the mainstream than any other products. When people describe that type of UI, the most helpful line is "iPhone-like user interface," because everyone knows what that means. From a business perspective, Apple has made by far the most money from multitouch. Apple wins!

The next big win, however, could belong to Microsoft.

Wave your hands in the air like you just don't care

Many of the users I talk to say they'll never give up physical keyboards. That's because they think the future involves as much typing as the present.

Right now, we type everything -- emails, documents, URLs, commands. On our mobile devices, we text like crazy.

Doing all of that typing with an on-screen keyboard is unpleasant. No question about it.

I believe we will still have keyboards in the future -- though they will be made out of software, rather than plastic and springs. But most of us will barely use them.

That's because the main input will be Siri-like voice control and Dragon-like dictation. And "commands" will be communicated via gestures executed by touching the screen or by moving your hands in midair.

Right now, here's how you use email: You sit down at a PC and use a mouse to open an email application with a double-click. Or you double-click to open a Web browser and type in the URL of a cloud-based email service. Looking at the inbox, you click on the first message, scan it, then click on a button to delete it. Then you click to view another message, click Reply, then type out a response: "Sounds good, Steve. Talk to you soon." You then click the Send button.

It's all keyboards and mice

Five years from now, here's how that same activity will play out: Your PC will be a giant TV-screen-size display set at an angle, with the bottom of the screen at waist level, and the top of the screen at about collarbone height. Your PC will replace the desk entirely. As you walk toward the system, you'll say: "Open email." By the time you sit down, you'll be looking at that first message. A wave of your hand, like you're shooing a fly away, will archive the message and open the next one. You'll reply by saying: "Reply and say, 'Sounds good, Steve. Talk to you soon,' and send it." The punctuation will be taken care of for you, unless you specify punctuation.

When you're done using email, you'll close the application with a gesture that's similar to rudely telling someone to leave the room (holding your hand bent at the wrist and then straightening it away from your body).

There's no mouse. And not only is there no physical keyboard, there's no on-screen keyboard, either. This is why people won't miss physical keyboards.

You'll also have the option to manipulate things with iPhone-like multitouch gestures. It'll be your choice.

We've all become familiar with touch interfaces. Voice is growing fast. But where will in-the-air gesture technology come from?



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