SEATTLE Microsoft Corp. (MSFT.O) will unveil a
coffee-table-shaped "surface computer" on Wednesday in a major
step towards co-founder Bill Gates's view of a future where the
mouse and keyboard are replaced by more natural interaction
using voice, pen and touch.
Microsoft Surface, which has a 30-inch display under a
hard-plastic tabletop, allows people to touch and move objects
on screen for everything from digital finger painting and
jigsaw puzzles to ordering off a virtual menu in a restaurant.
It also recognizes and interacts with devices placed on its
surface, so cell phone users can easily buy ringtones or change
payment plans by placing their handsets on in-store displays,
or a group of people gathered round the table can check out the
photos on a digital camera placed on top.
The world's largest software maker said it will manufacture
the machine itself and sell it initially to corporate
customers, deploying the first units in November in Sheraton
hotels, Harrah's casinos, T-Mobile stores, and restaurants.
The company is selling the Surface for between $5,000 and
$10,000 each, but aims to bring prices down to consumer levels
in three to five years and introduce various shapes and forms.
"We see this as a multibillion dollar category, and we
envision a time when surface computing technologies will be
pervasive, from tabletops and counters to the hallway mirror,"
Chief Executive Steve Ballmer said in a statement.
Analysts say the first few applications only hint at what
"The potential for the interface is huge," said Matt
Rosoff, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, an independent
research firm. "Once you open it up to applications, what you
can think of is limitless."
Microsoft held demonstrations of the technology last week
and Ballmer will officially introduce it at the Wall Street
Journal's "D: All Things Digital" conference on Wednesday.
Microsoft shunned its usual PC manufacturing partners and
decided to take control of the surface computer's hardware
production using an undisclosed contract manufacturer. It will
run the Windows Vista operating system.
BETTER THAN A TABLET?
Microsoft has a mixed record with new technology. Its Zune
music player has not yet become a major challenger to Apple
Inc.'s (AAPL.O) iPod, but its Xbox 360 game console has enjoyed
early success in the battle of next-generation game machines.
For years Gates has championed touch-screen technology such
as the tablet PC with little success, but the Surface is a
totally different shape and allows for multiple users at once.
In a demonstration, Microsoft placed a digital camera with
a wireless chip on the tabletop. The Surface recognized the
camera and sent its pictures to the display, allowing people
around the table to sift through them, grabbing and turning
pictures or making them bigger or smaller by spreading or
narrowing their fingers.
Microsoft showed in another demonstration how Deutsche
Telekom (DTEGn.DE) cell phone operator T-Mobile USA, one of its
launch partners, could deploy the computer in its stores.
A customer can grab a phone off the shelf, place it on the
tabletop where it will recognize the device and pop up the
handset's specifications and information to the screen. For a
side-by-side comparison with another phone, the customer can
put down a second handset next to the first phone.
"It's drop-dead simple and people really like it, because
it mimics what they do in the real world," said Pete Thompson,
general manager of Microsoft's surface computing business.
Microsoft said at launch it will deploy a virtual concierge
for Harrah's Entertainment Inc.'s casinos in Las Vegas and
place the surface computers in the lobbies of Starwood Hotel &
Resorts Worldwide Inc.'s (HOT.N) Sheraton hotels.
It also signed a distribution and development agreement
with slot-machine maker International Game Technology (IGT.N).