During the joint Gates/Ballmer opening interview at the D6 conference on Tuesday (all stories), the audience was treated to an early look at Windows 7, which, according to Ballmer, will ship to customers in late 2009. The demo showed a full-screen multitouch interface embedded in the operating system. We saw a demo of a Surface-like app for organizing photos, and what appeared to be the Windows 1.0 Paint app, except that you can now draw with all your fingers at once. Also, a digital globe app, where the two-handed interface makes good sense. And a piano app, on which, thanks to multitouch, you can now play chords.
Aside from a glimpse at a touch-enabled Windows task bar, that was it. The interface. The coat of paint on top of the multitasking engine, the file system, the security, the device drivers...the foundation that the UI is built on top of.
After the demo, I ran in to Bill Gates and asked him why he showed just the UI and didn't discuss the underpinnings. His explanation: "It's hard to show more in only five minutes...the security, the speed..." Then he took his plate of shrimp and left. And Ballmer had said, earlier in the evening, that the biggest pushback Microsoft got on Vista from customers was not around its security systems or its drivers, but rather on its interface.
But I really want to believe that customers--or failing that, at least the techie D6 audience--is able to see beyond the surface. There are so many more important things to worry about, both for users and for Microsoft. Cloud computing is obviating the need for much of what the OS does, yet users want to maintain control and ownership of their personal data. Network-delivered user interfaces can do a lot of what the desktop UI has traditionally done, but only when the user is online. I was really hoping for Ballmer and Gates to address the changing nature of computing, and not fight Apple for the design award; I really don't think the Microsoft UI juggernaut committee is going to be able to outflank the Apple design team's Zodiac runabout.
Make no mistake, multitouch is cool. And it may, eventually, be important. Apply the technology at a personal level, to the manipulation and visualization of complex data structures like a Facebook social network, and it could be a game changer. Furthermore, support for this interface method does belong in the operating system, because you need device driver support for it. But even if you buy that logic, I believe the multitouch project is inconsequential when compared with the bigger things we need from an OS. And I think the audience, both here at D6 and elsewhere, deserves to know what's really changing in Windows at a deep level. We can wait a bit before we worry about the surface.
Am I asking for too much? Check out this Microsoft video of Windows 7 and chime in with your thoughts: