The Pending UI Revolution

Touch-enabled interface ushers in a new era

With the release of Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012, we're potentially on the cusp of a massive change to the Windows UI that we've become accustomed to over the years. Unless you've been hiding in a cave somewhere, you've probably heard that Windows 8 uses an all-new touch-enabled interface. In earlier builds, Microsoft used the term Metro to describe this interface but has since moved away from this name, opting instead for the more generic Windows 8 UI. Whatever Microsoft eventually ends up calling it, you might not realize that this same interface is coming in Server 2012 as well—which means whether or not you have plans to upgrade your desktops, you're going to need to learn to cope with the new UI. Plus, of course, in usual Microsoft fashion, Windows 8 will be on all the new PCs that you purchase, so there's no question that this new interface will find its way into businesses over the course of the next year. For database professionals, this means changes in the way servers are managed, but it will also usher in an era of multiple desktop UIs where users and IT professionals will need to cope with the older Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7 interfaces as well as the new Windows 8 interface.

In the big scope of things, the more significant issue is the move away from mouse-based input to touch-based input. Today's smartphones and the iPad have made it clear that touch is a fantastic interface for tablet devices. It's less clear whether it's good for desktops and servers. In any case, that won't be much of an issue initially because the vast majority of organizations won't have touch-enabled hardware. In my early experiences with Server 2012, I've found the new interface to be somewhat cumbersome to use with a mouse and I haven't been a fan of the new UI on the server. I have liked the UI on the early tablet devices I've used. Although Microsoft has made an attempt to fuse the two interfaces in the Windows 8 UI, Apple might actually have the better idea. Apple has used touch for phones and tablets and has left the keyboard and mouse for laptops and PCs. At this early stage, it's too early to tell which UI design philosophy will win out, but one thing is clear: Touch is here to stay and it's going to get bigger.

Moving to a touch-based interface definitely introduces several issues that might seem small but that greatly affect usability. For instance, touch points that are used by your fingers must by necessity be far bigger than the UI elements that a mouse pointer can hit. Applications such as all of the current generation of Windows programs are designed for mouse input and don't work as well using touch. Likewise, the touch interface uses swiping motions and gestures that are impossible to emulate using a mouse. If the touch-enabled Windows 8 UI takes off, applications will also need to be rewritten. Today's touch-enabled devices tend to use apps that are simpler than traditional Windows applications.

Windows 8 on Microsoft's Surface tablet and a host of other third-party touch-enabled devices are ushering in a new era that will revolutionize the UI. Although it's going to take some time for touch to become prevalent, the hardware that enables touch is now available. For example, at the most recent TechEd conference, I demonstrated a new generation of HP monitors that are touch enabled and priced about the same as regular monitors. Also, devices such as the Microsoft Surface tablets will be available before the end of 2012. It's definitely time to start thinking about acquiring touch-enabled hardware, and future applications should be designed with the idea that they might run on touch-enabled devices.

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