CARLSBAD, CALIF. — Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) plans to give users of the next version of its Windows operating system touch screen controls as one option for controlling the software, its top executives said on Tuesday.
Chairman Bill Gates and Chief Executive Steve Ballmer showed off new Windows features based on software it calls “multitouch” that will be part of Windows 7, the next version of Windows, which Ballmer said was due out in late 2009.
The ability to use touch to give users fingertip control of their screens could help revolutionize how computer desktops and mobile phones are controlled and would be an alternative to existing mice, keyboard and pen-based user controls.
During a joint interview that kicked off The Wall Street Journal‘s three-day D: All Things Digital conference, an annual gathering of the computer industry elite taking place north of San Diego, Ballmer said touch screen controls was one example of how Microsoft would improve on existing Windows software.
Microsoft is seeking to one-up Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), which made touch-screen software central to the success of its iPhone mobile device, which combines computer, phone and Web features and has sold around 6 million units in its first 11 months.
After more than a decade of slow development, Gates said new ways of interacting with computers other than keyboards and mice have matured to the point where they are ready to go mainstream.
“We are at an interesting juncture where almost all of the interaction is with the computer and mouse, today, and, over the years to come, the role of speech, vision, ink, all of those will become huge,” Gates said.
He was referring to technologies that gives users the ability to control computers with voice commands, detect and sort different kinds of images and use electronic ink instead of typing for computer input.
Multitouch software builds on existing capabilities Microsoft has introduced in recent years including Surface, for interacting with large tabletop computer displays, TouchWall for mounted screens and Tablet PCs for touchscreen notebooks.
In a demonstration of touchscreen capabilities to be offered in Windows 7, Microsoft showed a new application called “Touchable Paint” that lets a user paint with their fingers, as well as software to organize photos or navigate maps by touch.
“It is not about complete replacement of the mouse,” Julie Larson-Green, Microsoft’s corporate vice president in charge of Windows Experience Program Management, said in a first-time demonstration of multi-touch features to run inside Windows 7.
Ballmer said Microsoft is trying to learn from the reaction to Windows Vista, the latest version of its operating system, which was introduced in January 2007 but faced initial criticism for being incompatible with many older applications.
He said Microsoft has sold 150 million copies of Vista, up from 140 million the company reported it had sold a month ago.
“When you read the customer research, the No. 1 people found jarring is that we changed the user interface,” Ballmer said. “People take a while to get used to it.”
He said Microsoft had learned lessons about making dramatic changes in the way users interact with new versions of Windows. Conference co-host Walter Mossberg asked Ballmer whether Microsoft was done changing the user interface.
“We will polish it,” Ballmer replied. “We will change it, but there are ways to change it and there are times to do it.”
Vista followed five years after the previous Windows upgrade and was beset by delays due to the complexity of updating a piece of software with some 50 million lines of code that runs on more than 90 percent of the world’s computers.
After the problems of releasing Vista in a timely manner, Ballmer pledged to never again wait so long between releases of its Windows operating system. Microsoft has said it expected to release the new operating system code-named Windows 7 around three years after the early 2007 release of Windows Vista.
Ballmer acknowledged that Microsoft considered Apple a formidable competitor. But he said the two companies’ audiences were vastly different in scale, with Apple supplying around 10 million computers this year versus the roughly 290 million machines which PC makers will sell running Microsoft Windows.
“Whether Apple has a PC with touch in it to market first, we’ll see,” Ballmer said.