Scratching the Surface

May 30, 2007

Check your pulse and blood pressure.  How are you doing?  Do you need to sit down, or see a qualified physician?  Microsoft has made good on their promise of an announcement and unveiled the Microsoft Surface paradigm.  Hot on the heels of Microsoft losing a staring contest with OSS over patents, they launch a product with clear technological underpinnings seen elsewhere in the past, albeit in a slick single package.  Touch screen/3dfx/physics do not a new product make.  I need to go dig up the circa 2001/2002 videos that made their way around the intertubes with nearly identical ideas.  But finally MS has answered the oft-asked question: How would they implement a super sexy scientologist software screen?

The interest for me is where the rubber hits the road.  What will the product look like as opposed to the promotional videos?  How will it be used in practice?  No need to clutter an introductory message with details, but I sincerely doubt that young, well-dressed people everywhere will be placing their credits on ubiquitous Surface tables around the world this fall.

  • Target market: Obviously business, as MS always get businesses to Early Adopt, subsidize the R&D costs, then move into consumer markets later.  But they already show home use, which is a bit odd – trying to get people to have an emotional attachment?  Show a cool condo of one of the staff?
  •  Actual tech: Yes, I’ll read the article what Anandtech or ARS inevitably pull one apart.  Some early product use footage with Billy Boy himself?  Check the video here.  Is this graphics engine layered on Vista with DX10?  I’m too lazy to read more but am curious because of the older non-MS afore-mentioned solutions.  If it involves Silverlight at some point I will likely throw up in my mouth.  Is it too soon to ask if I can play my ogg files on it? (Like I need to ask)
  • Connectivity: They say through wi-fi in the video, not BlueTooth.  Any other options?  IR or RFID?  Can Microsoft actually make a Pop-Up free interface?  Since it’s targeting public places, is this the worst possible time to actually succeed?  Every time I set a camera or wallet on a restaurant table what will happen?  Nearly all POS (double entendre intended) systems I see are all antiquated and falling apart, will establishments pay through the nose for this?
  • Partnerships: Do they have a pipeline of people ready to make products and associated drivers that can connect and interact with this interface?  The leverage seems tenuous at best since…
  • Implementation: Based on the cost and the low profits margins of restaurants, will this be anywhere but expensive restaurants and boutique hotels for the next couple of years?  Will the small/exclusive amount of actual machines in the wild be an impediment to partnerships?  Here’s where being a monopoly really helps.
  • Interaction: When will they give up just the touch screen and have the virtual slide out keyboard?  Or do they already but want to focus on the ease-of-use?  Will they later push voice enablification (not ideal in initial public placements)?
  • Utility: Will this be any more than a gimmick for places that want you to pay $2000 for a meal/designer handbag/hotel room?  People go and spend money in public to….wait for it….have people wait on them and feel important.  I ate at restaurants 20 years ago with microphones directly to the kitchen to order.  And a while ago places fiddled with card swipers at tables.  Why no uptake?  Because people want another human to be subservient and friendly and make your experience enjoyable and relaxing.  If I can’t flirt with a young waitress and show her my platinum card, I’ll freaking eat at home.

So why the big deal?  Are people so exhausted from hours of MS Paint, resizing images and making postcards that this will be a new paradigm?  Are we so sick of USB 2.0 and firewire transfer speeds that we need a tabletop that can, if the videos are accurate. wirelessly recognize, connect and pull down 30 high-res photos in roughly .7 seconds?  Are the army of Zune owners dying to share media with each other not directly but through a PacMan table?  Of course not.

It’s about technological mindshare and leadership in the eyes of the public.  MS is just not a leader (in the visionary sense) in operating systems, interfaces, hardware, software, and entertainment devices.  They don’t have the living room/media traction they had hoped for 5-6 years ago.  Tivo/AppleTV/Wii/PS3/every satellite and cable company wants in too.  This could establish some much needed “oohs” and “ahhhs” from the general public that hasn’t seen this type of interface before.  And I think it’ll work.  Companies are so anxious to be on the forefront (voice, tablet PCs, unified TV/computer like WebTV) that it’s a rule to offer something to the public before it’s actually useful.  This is no different.  And with MS’ R&D budget, it’s not like this experiment will pay for itself by learning UI habits of consumers and have a trickle-down effect into their other interfaces.  It’s about an increasingly boring company releasing something cool to improve association.  No different that Ford releasing some supercar.


One Response to “Scratching the Surface”

  1. Leo Says:

    Yeah I thought the same thing. While these demos are cool, are they actually usable as a computing platform? The Microsoft tech is the same as the tech shown a year ago at the TED talks, which in turn was just a flashy version of what has been there (multitouch tabletop displays) for several years. Once you get past the “wow” factor, is this useful to anyone but a niche market? Obviously I see the application for artists (like a super tablet), but I don’t see the toss images around on a fake desktop and resize them. It’s just a gimmick.

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