Windows 7 starts race with Apple to full multi-touch desktop OS

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The first public showing of Microsoft's next major Windows update reveals an operating system with a familiar-looking dock and a more than slight emphasis on multi-touch displays.

Demonstrated at the Wall Street Journal's D6 Conference, Windows 7 is described by observers from the newspaper as having a touch interface recognizable to "anyone who’s ever used an iPhone."

Similar to what was demonstrated a year ago with the Surface table — as well as applications preloaded on the iPhone — the operating system will let users zoom into and rotate photos or maps using natural finger-based gestures, including pinching and flicking. Users can also draw multiple points at once a new version of Paint.

There will also be hooks for multi-touch throughout the entire Windows interface, Microsoft's Julie Larson-Green has said while demonstrating the technology, although none of these have been demonstrated at this early stage. The software is being built with multiple simultaneous users in mind now that touchscreens and other peripherals free users from being tied to a keyboard.

"In the next few years, the roles of speech, gesture, vision, ink, all of those will become huge," adds Microsoft chairman Bill Gates.

The technology to implement the feature outside of the multi-thousand-dollar Surface is already getting close, according to Larson-Green. An example Dell Latitude XT modified to recognize multiple inputs can already perform some of the functions with reasonable accuracy, while a larger desktop LCD smaller than the Surface is closer to Microsoft's intended experience.

While such technologies are expected to ultimately filter into most computer technology over time, their appearance at D6 effectively begins a race between Apple and Microsoft to commercialize a fully multi-touch desktop operating system. Apple is the first of the two to put any multi-touch product into the market with 2007's iPhone, but the Mac maker has so far limited its computer support to an enhanced trackpad for certain MacBooks that has only a handful of uses in Finder as well as some built-in apps, such as iPhoto.

The Cupertino, Calif.-based firm has all the same taken early steps to develop and patent forms of multi-touch that would extend to a whole software platform, including pressure-sensitive screens as well as unique advanced multi-touch surfaces that would be used for typing in addition to gesture input. The iPhone by itself has over 200 associated patents, many of which relate to its multi-touch display.

Whichever of the two wins the contest for touch interfaces, Microsoft may also have to explain a more conventional similarity in Windows 7 when it arrives as soon as late 2009. The still very young operating system features a revamped, more colorful taskbar and the conspicuous addition of a Mac OS X-like dock for quickly managing apps.

"Multi-touch and a Dock. In Windows," comments the Journal's John Paczkowski. "Steve Jobs would be proud."