Sunday, January 13, 2013

Selecting text, touch screens, and Windows 8

In the age of the finger-driven tablet, Microsoft has released Windows 8. Despite their improvements in how touch input is handled (don't snicker, there are some decent ideas), Microsoft has dropped the ball on one huge aspect of daily computer life: OS-wide text selection.

I've been using Windows 7 with two touch screens for a week. (They're Viewsonics.) Selecting text in Word or any other program is difficult, though not a dealbreaker, but at the same time is the toughest problem I'm facing in being able to work less with the keyboard.

You can tap on the screen to place the Insertion point (inaccurate with a finger but serviceable). You can hold your finger down and drag left-right to start selecting (up-down starts scrolling). But unless you have a transluscent finger (I don't), you can't see what you are selecting.

Mobile OS's (iOS, Android, Windows Phone) offer ways around this. Once you have a selection or insertion pointer, handles appear above or below the text that can be dragged to change the selection. This takes care of the selecting text and being able to see what you are doing. This feature is system-wide. Every program that allows you to select text, does it this way.

You might say that Windows 8 offers this feature, but it does not do so in system-wide fashion. APIs may exist for this, maybe, but it's up to each program to specifically take advantage of this. For example, if you run Word 2013 and try to select some text, you'll get two little circles below the words that act as selection handles, just like mobile OS's. That's good. The same occurs in Internet Explorer "Metro" edition. However, if you use Notepad in Windows 8, you don't see the selection handles. And Internet Explorer in Desktop mode doesn't offer them either.

When I run Word 2007 in Windows 8, I don't get the handles either. I have to upgrade Word so I can select text using my finger in a touch-focused operating system. Seems expensive for what should be a feature that should be naturally available. I'm sure there are technical reasons for not being able to graft selection handles onto pre-Windows-8 programs, but at the same time, it's a touch-centric OS. This kind of thing should be available everywhere by default.

I've spent many Google CPU cycles trying to find a hack or add-on that will get me this feature in Word 2007. I'm considering trying to code something myself in Visual Basic or AutoHotkey. If I discover something I will post it here. But in the meantime, if you are planning to use a touch screen to edit documents, keep your mouse and keyboard close.