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Coming soon: Indirect multi-touch support for Windows 8!

If you listen to the Windows Weekly podcast, you know that I revealed in the May 24, 2012 episode, The Dumbening, that Microsoft would be adding indirect touch gesture support to Windows 8. This is an important expansion of Windows 8’s support for multi-touch: As I had noted previously in Battle Of The Betas: Windows 8 Vs. OS X Mountain Lion, Microsoft and Apple were previously taking different approaches to multi-touch in their desktop OSes, with Microsoft relying on direct (on-screen) multi-touch while Apple relies on indirect, trackpad-based multi-touch features.

“Rather than suggest that one approach is better than the other,” I wrote, “I’ll posit that any modern operating system should support both touch methods—direct and indirect—and that neither Windows 8 nor OS X, natively, at least rises to that challenge.”

Well, now Windows 8 is rising to that challenge. And it emerges as a superior multi-touch experience as a result.

To recap, Windows 8 of course supports normal mouse and keyboard interaction, as per previous Windows versions, and where the word “mouse” can of course be interchanged with any normal PC pointing device, including trackpads. (In fact, Windows 8 dramatically increases its support for keyboard shortcuts when compared to, say, Windows 7, but that’s another story.

Windows 8 also fully supports the pen and stylus input types that Microsoft innovated with its Tablet PC systems from a decade ago. The software giant hasn’t talked this up much, but Windows 8’s support for this input type is in fact better than it’s ever been, and I suspect that as many people mix and match between input types on their Windows 8 devices, they will come to appreciate how well this works, including its finely honed handwriting recognition functionality.

Windows 8 also features Microsoft’s best-ever support for multi-touch displays, and while most of us think “tablet” when we hear this, it’s pretty clear that Windows 8 will usher in a new era of multi-touch devices of all kinds, including touch-based PC displays, laptops, hybrids, all-in-ones, and more. Multi-touch is going to be huge, and not just for devices you can carry with a single hand.

And now Windows 8 will also natively support indirect multi-touch, which is gesture support that occurs through a PC’s trackpad. So instead of (or, in addition to) touching the screen directly, you can apply gestures to the surface of the trackpad and achieve many common Windows 8 touch-based actions in a new way. Assuming they get this right, Microsoft may have out-done Apple in this regard, since OS X already includes excellent indirect, trackpad-based gesture support. (But does not, as noted, support any direct, screen-based multi-touch at all.)

Here’s how it will work.

If you buy a new Windows 8-based PC that includes a trackpad, you’ll get this support “in box,” which is to say that the PC will come with the necessary drivers to make it work.

If you already have a Windows 7-based PC, it will be up to the trackpad maker to determine whether to support Windows 8 multi-touch gestures, and my guess is that many will not. According to Microsoft, the size, sensitivity, and performance characteristics of some trackpads may make this unworkable.

The bad news? This capability is not included in the Windows 8 Release Preview, and will not be made available, to my knowledge, any time soon.

But, I do have a new, second generation Samsung Series 9 Ultrabook here for testing, and it includes rough, beta-quality versions of the appropriate drivers. And with this, we can see which capabilities are available. They include:

Pinch zoom. You can pinch (and “reverse pinch”) on the trackpad surface to zoom in compatible apps and experiences, such as a photo you’re viewing in the Photos app.

Pan and scroll. You can use two fingers to pan and scroll. To pan, which is basically a horizontal scrolling (typical for multi-screen Metro-style experiences, including the Start screen), you drag two fingers from left to right (or vice versa) across the surface of the trackpad. Scrolling works as it does today: You drag two fingers up and down on the trackpad surface.

Charms. To display the Charms, you slide in on the trackpad surface from the right edge of the trackpad.

Switcher. To access the new Switcher interface, you slide in on the trackpad surface from the left edge of the trackpad.

App bar. To display an app’s (or the Start screen’s) app bar, you slide in on the trackpad surface from the top edge of the trackpad.

Rotate. An uncommon gesture (and disabled by default), this lets you use two fingers to rotate an onscreen display, such as you might want to do in an image editing solution.

Since these gestures work so similarly to the screen-based multi-touch gestures that have been in Windows 8 since the Developer Preview, getting up and running was pretty straightforward. I find some of the controls a bit sensitive, but there’s a control panel that comes with the drivers that helps you tweak the settings to your liking. And I suspect these drivers will only get better over time.

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Beta Elan trackpad interface

Trackpad makers are also free to add their own custom gestures that expand on the set, listed above, that Microsoft stipulates. On the test laptop, there were additional options for such things as three-fingered clicks, palm tracking, sensitivity, and so on.

Anyway, it’s clear that this capability, even in a rough beta state, is a big improvement for Windows 8 and one that will impact a large number of users. I’m happy Microsoft made this change: The lack of indirect multi-touch support, while not a true Achilles Heel, was at least a failing. And now it’s one less thing about which any would-be critic can complain.

But wait, there’s more!

Discover much, much more about the Windows 8 Release Preview in Windows 8 Release Preview: The Ultimate Delta Guide, a guide to all of the articles I’ve published about this milestone build of Microsoft’s next OS.