Surface: Microsoft’s Sexy Coffee Table

I’ll bet that there are days at the Microsoft campus when some groups are working on a super-secret project that they just wish they could tell the world about it. In fact, keeping their secret must drive them crazy. Especially when some other company comes out with a similar project to the one they were working on, or shows off some feature in one of their demos that seriously steals some of their thunder. Time to market is part of the game, and when you lose the race, it hurts. That’s probably how the group who were working on the project called ‘Surface‘ felt some months ago when Steve Jobs made his spectacular iPhone demo, particularly when he showed that product’s new User Interface called Multi-touch. Multi-touch, at least the way that Apple defined it, means that a device can tell when you have one or two fingers touching a touch screen, and behaves differently depending on how those fingers interact. For the iPhone, this means that you can tap and double tap for some behaviors, tap and fling to move a screen or scroll a page, or touch with two fingers and move them toward or away from each other in order to zoom in or out on an image. It’s that last one that Microsoft’s new product has, and I’ll bet they were gnashing their teeth and grimacing with each ooh and ah from the crowd as they reacted to Jobs’ demo at MacWorld last January.*

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Surface, besides all of that multi-touch stuff, is a strangely exotic and futuristic product. Most folks would call it ‘bleeding edge’. It’s frankly not something I expect from Microsoft. When I think of Microsoft, I think of Windows™. Windows is not bleeding edge. It’s market-tested, well worn, doesn’t take chances, and is definitely not exotic and futuristic. It runs on hardware that is getting cheaper by the day, and most of the time that hardware is, well, ugly (with a few exceptions from Sony and maybe one or two others).

Surface is none of that. It’s a 30 inch acrylic display with touchscreen built into a rather austere-looking coffee table that’s 22 inches high, 21 inches deep and 42 inches wide. There’s no keyboard and no mouse, although it does have Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and wired Ethernet connectivity. The main way that you interact with it is by touching the screen. Actually, Surface is designed to work not only with more than one finger touching at once, but with more than one person interacting with it at once. Oh, and yes, in case you forget, it’s a computer running Microsoft’s own Vista OS (Windows is still in there somewhere!) and will probably cost somewhere between $3,000 and $5,000. (Update: I just found out that these numbers are $5,000 to $10,000. No big surprise there.) What remains is the question of what you actually do with a $10,000 coffee table touchscreen computer with Internet and wireless connectivity.

Here are some examples of what Microsoft has in mind: (click on these thumbnails to see a larger image).

Multi-touch in Action Multi-User Computing

In the Fact Sheet on their web site, Microsoft says that they will ship Surface (and yes, this is a shipping product) “… to partners with a portfolio of basic applications, including photos, music, virtual concierge and games, that can be customized to provide their customers with unique experiences.” The web site for showing off Vista has several video demos, ranging from happy-smiling-people (a term I learned from my days at Fidelity that refers to those models you see in business ads who always seem to be having a better day than you are) arranging digital photographs, planning a trip, playing cards, and interacting with their cell phones as they place them on the glass table-top display. One of the demos that seems just a little unrealistic has a little girl using Surface to paint a cute picture. I’m sorry, but even though the top 1% of the very wealthy in the US are getting wealthier, it’s hard to imagine anyone but the Gates families and a few others that can afford a 10K electronic paint toy for their kid, much less place it in the living room. What did look the most interesting, however, were the instances where someone was interacting with one or more cell phones, allowing people to download trip information into them by dragging the information into a box that stood for the phone on the screen or moving music tracks from one cell phone/audio player (iPhone? Zune?) to another. The one that made me think ‘Hmm, I don’t think they’ve thought through the social dynamics of this one…’ was an example where a group of diners in a restaurant split the bill and dragged their portions to their cell phones. It might be nice to be able to split a bill with perfect math accounting for each dish ordered, but somehow having that appear on the screen felt a bit…awkward? I suppose it’s no worse than the waitress splitting up the bill, but can you imagine the tug-of-war that might ensue when one or more diners tries to pay for the other?

The fact is, this is a product that is probably going to be seen in casinos and some upscale restaurants and hotels first. The living room will have to wait. I have to say that I like that Microsoft is thinking outside the box (or rather, the desktop or laptop), and some of the applications do look fun. Will this catch on? I’m not sure. For a long time, people were hot on touchscreen kiosks for some of this activity, and they never really took off, and I can’t really see Surface working as a real restaurant table:

Oh, I spilled my Curry sauce all over the computer screen…
Don’t worry sir, I’ll just wipe it up, oh, whoops, sorry to order that round of champagne…
Oh, how cute, little Dylan is playing Blackjack between courses…Oh, don’t stab at the table with your fork, sweetheart…

Damn that messy physical world, full of food, klutzes and kids getting in the way of our cool software technology!

I used and designed interfaces for a touchscreen years ago, and I was struck then by the intimacy of the interactions. Rather than move a cursor via a physical proxy (the mouse, trackball or trackpad), you can touch a part of the screen, and sometimes that piece of the screen would change, just like in the physical world. The examples that Microsoft showed had this happening most of the time. You touch something, it either ripples, moves or highlights. The Surface UI is meant to be more than simply a new display, form factor and method of input, it’s a different style of interactivity that looks like the iPhone writ large (and for two or more people). I’ll bet it just kills the Surface team to hear that.

*It’s worth mentioning that Jeff Han demoed a surface interface at TED in 2006, and much of what he demonstrated is reflected in Microsoft’s new product. Han’s demo also got oohs and ahs, but it has only been seen by a relative few, where the hype for the iPhone definitely went farther into the mainstream media.

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