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Touch-centric Windows 8 without mouse and keyboard leaves a lot behind

Microsoft mice and keyboards may be a necessary evil

The new Windows 8 Wedge mouse and keyboard seem innovative and well engineered, but the real news is that they will be necessary add-ons for some Windows 8 tablets, especially when the tablets are used for traditional business applications.

While Microsoft promotes touch as the key element of Windows 8, in more ways than one it acknowledges the reality that it must continue to support the mouse-keyboard interface with which users are so familiar and for which most productivity applications are written.

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Even people who buy a tablet with Windows 8 running on it won’t want to use it just as a tablet, so they’ll need portable accessories to turn them into laptops.

That’s what these new mice and keyboards do. The Wedge keyboard has a cover that folds back on itself to create a stand on which a tablet can rest at an appropriate angle for viewing when it is used with the keyboard.  Nice. Placing the cover on the keyboard turns its power off, stretching battery life.

The keyboard battery chamber doubles as a prop to tilt up the back side of the device. The cover has a rubbery coating that can be laid against the screen of the tablet without damaging it and making it easy to carry the two devices together without them slipping against each other.

The mouse has a touch-sensitive panel that allows scrolling up, down, left and right by rubbing a finger across it, and its sensors for picking up motion when it is slid across a desk or counter is sensitive enough to work on virtually any surface.

Those are all up sides, but the fact that they exist at all is a downside. If you want to use a Windows 8 tablet with traditional desktop apps, you need to carry around three objects – mouse, keyboard and tablet. And with Windows 8 supporting touch but laden with an enormous wealth of legacy mouse-and-keyboard apps, users will pretty much be forced to buy them as tablet add ons.

That’s if they want tablets. They could always get by with a touch-screen laptop or a hybrid, but they don’t give the same in-the-hands touch experience where thumb flicks can summon charms and apps.

Even iPad tablet fans acknowledge this lugging around spare parts is a pain in the neck and many area actually excited to test Microsoft’s Surface tablets whose attached covers act as ultra-thin keyboards with touch mice built in. When the device needs to be just a tablet the cover folds out of the way onto the back side.

The consolidated nature of Surface – the mouse and keyboard are always there and fold out of the way for the device to kick into tablet mode – is what makes it attractive. It’s even got a built-in stand that folds out to prop up the tablet when it’s being used as a laptop.

But the best thing about it is that it’s one integrated unit. You pick it up and you’ve got all of it. And you don’t have to pay an extra $150 to get the mouse and keyboard.

Microsoft didn’t get into making tablets with keyboards because it thought it could make a lot of money at it. They’re making Surface because somebody has to produce a device that shows off Windows 8 to best advantage. Surface is it, or at least as close to it that we’ve seen yet. Microsoft apparently can’t depend on its hardware partners to deliver one at the same time Windows 8 is released.

The appearance of these Wedge devices is more proof that a tablet by itself is not the best machine for appreciating all the features of Windows 8.

(Tim Greene covers Microsoft for Network World and writes the Mostly Microsoft blog. Reach him at tgreene@nww.com and follow him on Twitter https://twitter.com/#!/Tim_Greene.)

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