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Switched On: Fishing for the fourth screen


Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

Last month's D: All Things Digital conference saw the launch of two platforms from well-known technology companies -- Microsoft's Surface, the coffee-table PC that can be used to sell coffee tables, and Palm's Foleo. the big-screened mobile companion for pocket devices from the company that popularized pocket companions for big-screened devices.

Both products rely on recent iterations of well-tred operating systems. The heart of Surface is simply a Vista PC, whereas the Foleo is based on Linux. But their usage models could hardly be more different. Surface is a large tabletop computer environment reminiscent of the cocktail arcade tables of the 80s but which is actually filled with infrared cameras and a projector -- a new application of rear-projection TV technology.

Foleo, with its small clamshell form factor, eschews any kind of touch-screen manipulation, instead introducing a scroll bar to facilitate moving through long Web pages and lists of e-mails. In contrast, at least for its initial kiosk-like deployments, Surface will take advantage of new applications that use its direct manipulation and recognition of physical objects. However, both products illustrate the challenges that companies have in trying to introduce a "fourth screen" to compete for consumer attention beyond the three screens of television, the PC, and the cell phone.

The company that has been most successful establishing such a screen has been Apple with its iPod. Thomson, which produces GE-branded phones, has suggested that the cordless phone could take the role as it has shown a high-end model that can read RSS feeds. Other candidates include the fast-growing segments of portable navigation devices from the likes of Garmin and TomTom and digital picture frames from Philips and Pandigital. However, with the possible exception of these frames, all of these device categories are threatened by the cellphone.

Despite our increasing mobility as a society, Surface has been better received than Foleo. This could be due to Surface's novel, inviting interface, or perhaps because it attacks a new or underpenetrated usage scenario. But Surface's big screen comes with a big price. Initial installations should be between $5,000 and $10,000 and even then won't be available to custom installers whose clients wouldn't balk at that sum. According to Microsoft, consumers will begin interacting with them in hospitality and retail environments before the end of the year, but it will likely be a few years before they are aimed at the home. The company admits it's an unusual go-to-market strategy in contrast to such grand pushes in the past two years as Xbox 360, Windows Vista, and Zune.

However, it's easy to see how Surface could be used in the home given the appropriate software. Viewing photos on a big-screen TV is a relatively sterile slide show experience. Viewing them on an interactive table where they can be passed around like real photos better captures the interaction as prints are passed around. Surface could also host or spice up casual games. And Surface could even breathe more life into the Media Center PC if used for, say, navigating a television guide while the TV shows full-screen video, or by being the ultimate home control user interface.

Unlike Microsoft with Surface, Palm is struggling to differentiate the Foleo's functionality from the wildly popular laptop PC, which continues to shrink in size as it takes advantage of faster wireless connections. But with Surface offering new inputs and locations for the desktop PC and Foleo offering richer input and display capabilities for the smartphone, perhaps the key to the fourth screen simply driving more functionality from the main three.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. His blog can be read at Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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