Microsoft Scratches the Surface

Analysis: Microsoft's 'Multitouch' technology has many applications.

Microsofts new Surface product and technology platform surfaced May 30.

Introduced by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer at the D Conference, in Carlsbad, Calif., Surface has been a long time coming. The first product, a 30-inch display table, is designed for commercial use.

The product uses cameras and software to detect human gestures, objects and devices on the tables, ah, surface. Microsoft promises a wide variety of interaction types, without the use of mouse or keyboard.

Surface enables people and devices to interact with a flat computing table. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates showed off a prototype of the technology, then referred to as "Play Table," at the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show.

Microsoft is initially targeting the technology at customers that deliver business-to-­consumer services, with early adopters including Starwood Hotels and T-Mobile USA.

There are myriad potential uses for Surface. For example, in a restaurant, a diner could manipulate a visual menu or pay by laying down his or her credit card on the Surface tabletop; two diners could split a bill by visually manipulating items and laying down credit cards for separate payments. In T-Mobile stores, consumers will be able to get sales and pricing information simply by placing their phones on top of the product.

In a brilliant move—or perhaps a fatal character flaw, depending on the outcome—Surface uses Windows Vista. Microsofts operating system brings jack-of-all-trades versatility to Surface, which uses cameras to detect fingers and hands, devices, and objects.

Indeed, Surface can be many things to many people: "Were giving consumers intuitive control over information with the flick of a finger or the wave of a hand," said Kyle Warnick, Microsofts senior marketing communications manager for Surface.

While Microsofts early customer focus is on business, consumers are longer-­term sales targets. "One day, you will see [Surface] in your home as well," Warnick said.

However, Microsoft estimates this will take three to five years, when

the technology and pricing are more mass-market-friendly. The Redmond, Wash., company expects its first-generation Surface table to cost between $5,000 and $10,000.

Analyst Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies, said he has been impressed with peoples reaction to Surface. "I think the emotional reaction is the same as [the reaction] to the flat panel [in the early 1990s]," Kay said. "Everyone looks at it and says, Wow! And thats an unusual reaction for any product."

"Multitouch," as Microsoft calls the capability, is the technology that distinguishes Surface from typical touch-screens. Rather than respond to one finger or one touch, Surface can take simultaneous input from multiple sources.

How important is touch? The way in which people interact with items for sale is telling: First, they look; then, they touch. They examine as much with their hands as their eyes. With Surface, Microsoft seeks to provide a more natural user interface than a computing screen, mouse and keyboard can provide.

Beneath the surface is a sea change. Surface comes to market from Microsofts Entertainment and Devices division—the same group responsible for the Xbox and Zune. Similar to those products, Surface is an end-to-end affair, with Microsoft developing the software and hardware. There is no immediate plan to license Surface to OEMs. Microsofts approach to Surface means that its partners cant expect to engage the company in new product categories the way they have with PC hardware.

"Were going to own it for the near term," Warnick said. "Over time, well continue to look at other options available to us."