Laptop Buyers Cold To Touch Despite Windows 8, Price Cuts

When Microsoft developed Windows 8's controversial UI and new Start Screen, the major impetus driving the design was the need to support touchscreen devices. Microsoft hammered this home at every opportunity, describing the new Metro design as a "touch first" experience. Then Windows 8 shipped, and precious few laptops had touchscreen support. This kicked off a kerfuffle of blaming between OEMs and Redmond, with the prediction that as touchscreen prices came down, consumers would embrace W8 and the touch-driven experience. Life would be great if Intel would just cut prices on those ultrabooks.

Things haven't played out that way. Granted, the laptop market itself is in the doldrums, but IDC has slashed its estimate of laptops sold with touch technology. In May, Acer was still predicting that 30-35% of systems sold would have touch screens and IDC was following with a more practical 17-18%. Now, that's been cut to 10%. The problem is simple: Microsoft grafted a tablet OS into a laptop computer without paying any attention to the question of whether people wanted a tablet OS on the computer.

The worst thing is, most of the W8 design decisions that still drive me nuts on the PC work just fine on Surface RT. The experience of using Metro on a tablet is different than using it on a desktop because on the desktop, I'm perpetually using my pixel-perfect pointing device to find giant finger-sized targets with next to no context-sensitive right-mouse functionality. On a tablet, when I've got a finger, these same targets fit well and I don't need mouse menu capability.

The problem with touch on a notebook is that it doesn't make ergonomic sense. Reaching out with one arm to manipulate the screen is great for an occasional program launch but 20 years of training has drilled into people that the mousepad or mouse are better for that sort of thing. At best, Windows 8 offers an experience in which touch is occasionally useful. Laptops that can fold over or have detachable displays, like the Lenovo Helix we reviewed last month, don't have this problem -- they present a definite use case -- but fold-over hybrids are heavier than plain tablets and detachable displays are still confined to more expensive devices.

The problem is being exacerbated by difficulties with economies of scale. The expectation last year was that more touch screen sales would drive lower prices as touch screen production ramped up. Without this effect, touch-enabled products are still markedly more expensive than their standard brethren. Manufacturers are still trying to create high-value propositions in the ultrabook segment -- the Toshiba Kirabook packs a 2560x1600 touchscreen LCD into its diminutive chassis.

I'm not sure there's a simple solution to this problem. It's rooted in the fact that the principle difference between keyboards and laptops is the keyboard and mouse, not just one or the other. Microsoft created an OS that works great with touch, but that's not enough of a reason to use touch when so much software still requires the precision of a standard pointing device. Analysts continue to call for Microsoft to restore the full Start Menu rather than just the Start Button, and say that the emphasis on touch-first is only alienating customers and leaving them reluctant to upgrade.