Apple’s iPhone to Microsoft’s Surface: Can’t Touch This.

The smoke is beginning to clear from Microsoft’s announcement of Surface, a specialized system consisting of numerous components (transparent glass table top, rear projector, infrared grid, five cameras, and barcode reading capability) built within a coffee table enclosure. The demo looks pretty good, but just how real is it, and will it ever be more than an intellectual exercise or high-priced item for retail outlets and casinos?

In an excellent article for the UK’s Channel Register, Andrew Fentem begins to expose some of Microsoft’s marketing as more than a little fluff:

“But let’s set the record straight. Microsoft’s Surface Computing isn’t “a new paradigm”, nor is it adding any innovation to an existing paradigm. Table computing isn’t a new market, either, and Microsoft’s demos are years away from being productized.”

Getting input from Bill Buxton, the article states that these types of interfaces have been around for 20 years. Further, the article questions why Microsoft (and others) focus on this older method of developing these interfaces, despite their known drawbacks:

“Moreover, perhaps Microsoft and developers like Jeff Han at NYU, who are building these ‘old-school’ multi-touch interfaces out of cameras and projectors, should consider the fatal flaw in their ‘innovations’. This being that all back-projection interfaces are enormous. Think about it – you’ve essentially got a small cinema in a box behind a screen. Forget mobility and portability. Is it even moveable?”

An interesting point is made that in all Microsoft’s demos the room is relatively dark. I think this simply emphasizes that one weakness of the system is its reliance on a rear projector. It then goes on to make what I consider an obvious point, and one I wrote about less than a week ago:

“The systems developed by Microsoft and Han do indeed look pretty on YouTube, but more pragmatic developers have known for some years that a successful commercial product would have to be flat and portable. People just don’t want huge cabinets in the era of mobile computing and flat-screen TV’s.”

Exactly. In my post I wrote “When will they be available to make this a portable device? Heck, forget portable, when will they be able to even make this an affordable and useful PC device?”. As Fentum’s article states:

“While Microsoft and Han appear to have been resurrecting ergonomics exercises from the past, other major players, such as Apple, Philips and Toshiba have been thinking hard about how to do multi-touch sensing without resorting to using a camera and a projector.”

The key to a successful multi-touch device is going to be portability and affordability. Microsoft producing the same old stuff backed up by a special version of Vista in a PC is only going to get so far. Lots of show, but is there any go outside the narrowly defined target market?

The article ends on a strong note:

“According to the BBC, “Microsoft said it aimed to produce cheaper versions for homes within three to five years”. And despite the sterling work of the likes of Philips et al, Microsoft have also claimed to be “the first major technology company to bring surface computing to market in a commercially ready product”. These conflicting statements seem to raise question marks over quite how far Microsoft have actually got. Only time will tell whether or not these demos are just smoke, mirrors, cameras and projectors.”

Indeed. What spawned my first post about Surface was the sloppy reporting that implied this technology could be on phones, or home PCs, soon. Yet Microsoft has nothing that indicates they’re anywhere near this kind of reality. In fact, its years off. I think it’s even longer than that if they don’t find a way to drop the projector-based model they’re using. Heck, they don’t even have the model they’re demoing ready, stating only that it will be released in Winter, 2007. Let’s see if they make that date.

Meanwhile, Apple will have a bona-fide, portable, MultiTouch device in the hands of consumers on June 29. Hmmm, let’s compare the two, shall we?

Microsoft’s approach:

  • Large coffee table form factor.
  • Maybe available in six months.
  • Old implementation that’s been around for 20 years.
  • Expensive and fragile optical technology.
  • Powered by Microsoft’s lukewarm Vista (hey, you can touch your viruses!).
  • Nicest features in the demo require barcode reading and tagging.
  • A fixture that weighs who knows how much.
  • Serves a purpose only retail stores and casinos know (video poker, anyone?).

Apple’s approach:

  • Very portable form factor.
  • Available June 29.
  • Implementation abandons the 20-year old multi-touch model for something practical.
  • Powered by a sophisticated UNIX-based OS.
  • All demoed features available Day 1, as is.
  • Solves real problems experienced with today’s complicated phones.

I own zero stock in either company, but I know where I’d put my money. Microsoft warmed over something and made a good demo site, but beyond its initial target base (and maybe not even there) its difficult to see Surface going anywhere but under.

2 thoughts on “Apple’s iPhone to Microsoft’s Surface: Can’t Touch This.

  1. Did you read the Register article I linked to? Surface is nothing new; basically the same stuff that’s been done for nearly 20 years. It won’t see the light of day for a while, and even then only in kiosks. Big deal.

    Apple made a practical implementation of _real_ touchscreen technology in a _real_ product people can actually buy and use. It’s no contest.

    But if you’d prefer an imaginary product to a real one, by all means keep watching the Surface demo site if that’s what trips your trigger.

  2. Puh-leeze….some generic touchscreen technology, oops ‘Multi-Touch’, is not nearly as complex as Surface regardless of whether it (Surface) sees the light of day.

    Apple’s touchscreen is nothing revolutionary. Their UI looks slick; still a long way from revolutionary.

    Pull your head out of Jobs’ a$$.

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