NZ's NextWindow rides Windows 7 touch-screen wave

More PC makers develop touch-screen machines for Windows 7

Auckland-based NextWindow's optical touch-screen overlays, which are already used to touch-enable Dell and HP PCs, are being adopted by PC and monitor makers rushing to take advantage of touch-screen support in Windows 7.

"We've got eight to 10 projects that we expect to go into mass production in the next one to two months," Al Monro, CEO of NextWindow, said in an interview last month. He declined to give the names of NextWindows' customers.

NextWindow supplied 400,000 touch-screen PC overlays last year and expects to supply a million this year. It is one of the largest vendors in the optical touch-screen market, along with Taiwanese hardware vendor, Quanta Computer, which is rumoured to be building a touch-screen tablet PC for Apple.

Optical touch is only one of six major types of touch-screen technology on the market today, according to Monro. The iPhone, for instance, uses projected capacitive technology, while touch-enabled cash registers typically use resistive film or infrared.

NextWindow mounts two sensors at the top of a screen that view a thin layer of light beamed across the monitor's surface. The sensors then detect when and where a finger or stylus is pressing down and blocking the light.

Despite the plethora of coming models, not everyone is bullish in the short term. Only about 1% of the notebook market, or 1.4 million PCs, were touch-enabled in 2008, according to research company IDC. As the notebook market booms, the percentage of touch-enabled models will actually shrink to 0.6% this year, and remain at 0.7% in 2010, IDC said.

That doesn't affect NextWindow, whose customers are all building all-in-one desktop PCs or LCD monitors, not laptops, netbooks or tablets, Monro said.

NextWindow's optical touch is particularly suited for desktop monitor-sized touch screens, in the range of 17 inches to 24 inches, for three reasons, Monro said: cost, image clarity and flexibility (users can use a finger, a hard or soft stylus, even a paintbrush).

But Monro admitted there are potential stumbling blocks for touch to take off with Windows 7. Vendors might price touch-enabled PCs too high to attract consumers, he said. Also, Windows 7 hasn't generated a huge wave of touch-enabled applications, he said.

There is a need for "some really cool [touch] apps put out by Google, Facebook, Adobe or Microsoft" running on Windows 7, he said. "So far, it's mostly smaller ISVs."

Apple may still be coy about whether it plans to launch a touch-screen tablet computer this year, but Windows PC makers are forging ahead.

In the last three weeks, five leading PC makers have announced or been reported to confirm plans to release touch-screen PCs running Windows 7, which will provide built-in multitouch features, as well as enable touch applications written for it.

These five companies would join Dell, which already sells the touch-screen-enabled Studio One all-in-one consumer desktop, and Hewlett-Packard, which has led the way with touch-screen PCs since it introduced its first TouchSmart computer in January 2007.

The latest entrants include:

  • Lenovo Group, which said earlier this month it plans to release a touch-enabled version of its new all-in-one PC, the IdeaCentre C100, after Windows 7 ships. In a spring interview, a Lenovo analyst said touch R&D has been a "huge area of focus" for the PC vendor.
  • Acer plans to launch three touch-enabled computers with Windows 7, the Taiwanese publication Digitimes reported last week.
  • Micro-Star International (MSI), another Taiwanese PC maker, was reported by Digitimes earlier this week to be planning to release a touch-enabled Windows 7 netbook.
  • Sony said last month that it plans to release touch-enabled Vaio PCs for Windows 7.
  • Asustek, which has already released a whole line of touch-enabled Linux PCs, was reported earlier this month to be planning to release a Windows 7 version of one of those models, the Eee T91 netbook, with a swivel LCD screen.

These PC makers together control more than 60 percent of the global computer market.

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