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Windows 7 starting out in Apple¿s rearview mirror

Though Microsoft has been uncharacteristically tight-lipped about the next version of Windows, tentatively codenamed Windows 7, last week at the Wall Street Journal's D: All Things Digital conference the company gave the world a peek at one of its key new features – multi-touch technology.

Sound familiar? It should. It's the same concept used in Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch. Oh, and let's not forget the trackpad gestures featured on the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro models.

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But before rushing to accuse Microsoft of ripping off another Apple idea, I must point out that Microsoft demonstrated multi-touch technology at last year's All Things Digital event with its tabletop "Surface" product. And according to Wikipedia, people outside of both Redmond and Cupertino have been experimenting with multi-technology for at least 25 years.

And there's Microsoft's problem. The one great new feature it tells us about, the one it's using to build anticipation for the release of Windows 7 (promised to appear (cough) in the vicinity of early 2010), already is yesterday's news.

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Both Apple and Microsoft have products on sale today that use touch-screen gestures as part of the interface. The iPhone has been with us for nearly a year, while Microsoft's Surface went on sale in April.

And who knows what new products will appear between now and when Windows 7 arrives?

I expect Apple to continue expanding its use of multi-touch technology. Its executives have stated publicly on several occasions the company's intent of establishing the iPhone/iPod Touch as a new mobile computing platform -- a platform that also happens to run Mac OS X Leopard.

Leopard's multi-touch capabilities mean that Apple can add the technology to existing products or incorporate it into new ones at will. Like a Mac tablet.

Just a week ago Jason O'Grady of ZDNet breathed new life into the years-old Mac tablet rumor. He cited an anonymous but reliable source that claimed Apple will introduce an "iTablet" in September or October.

Regardless of what Apple does and how long Microsoft has worked on this technology (the Surface started development back in 2001), hyping it over the next two years as some sort of brilliant innovation will only solidify the perception in the public's mind that of Microsoft as a technology follower, not a leader.

And that will be the least of Microsoft's problems. Although multi-touch is a very cool way to interact with a device, it is not suited for every purpose. It works well for the table-like Surface. It works very well for the small-screened iPhone. And I expect it will work well for tablet computers.

(Frankly I think Windows 7's multi-touch could be the salvation of the Tablet PC, which at its introduction in 2002 Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates predicted would be "the most popular form of PC sold in America" within five years.)

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But what about conventional laptop and desktop PCs?

The first hurdle people will face is that upgrading a PC to Windows 7 alone won't give users multi-touch capabilities. You also need the hardware -- a touch screen designed to receive tactile input.

Beyond that, will multi-touch even make sense for people sitting at their desks using a computer at home or at work? I'm not sure people will want to use a standard PC that way. In fact, the fussy among us already detest fingerprints on their screens.

Maybe Apple was thinking this when it limited multi-touch technology on the MacBook Air to the trackpad.

In any case, by the time Windows 7 shows up multi-touch will be far from cutting edge tech. Were I running Microsoft, I'd start promoting features in Windows 7 that won't look quite so passé in 2010. Unless of course they fear Apple will steal all their good ideas…


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