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Entelligence: Will Surface ever surface?


Entelligence is a column by technology strategist and author Michael Gartenberg, a man whose desire for a delicious cup of coffee and a quality New York bagel is dwarfed only by his passion for tech. In these articles, he'll explore where our industry is and where it's going -- on both micro and macro levels -- with the unique wit and insight only he can provide.

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." I'd paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke's famous quote for the CE market by saying that any sufficiently advanced new product needs to look like it just came off the Starship Enterprise. I'd say Microsoft Surface was a product that met my definition as well as Clarke's when it launched a few years back -- and it should have changed computing quite a bit. Sadly, I haven't spoken to the Surface team in a long time and it looks like it may never go anywhere in the end.

The Surface concept was great. It was a Windows PC inside a table with a 30" touchscreen on top, and cameras that could sense what's happening on screen. The result is you could use a Surface device just by touching the screen with your finger -- but unlike other large touch screens at the time, Surface was multitouch, so you could use all your fingers at the same time. More importantly, multiple users could engage with each other. It was a PC but didn't look or run like a PC, which was genius -- you'd never know it was running Windows, but there was no development learning curve. It was totally optimized for that big honking touch surface area, and applications that worked with it -- I'm sure it could run Office, but that's not something it's was ever likely to do. Surface was PC evolution happening in real time. It's really something you needed to see up close and in thirty seconds before the light bulb went on. Sadly, most people have never seen or worked with a Surface unit. Beyond a small retail rollout at AT&T stores in NY that seems to have ended, the last time I saw one was the Edelman PR offices, where it sat like a large coffee table and did pretty much nothing.

Surface could have been an extremely important product for Microsoft. First, it showed innovation was alive and well in Redmond. Second, it showed the market in a clear and concrete way that Microsoft can still take conceptual ideas and turn them into

Sadly, Surface ultimately showed that Microsoft still can't figure out markets and how to get products into the hands of real users.

products. Sadly, Surface ultimately also showed that Microsoft still can't figure out markets and how to get products into the hands of real users.

This is exactly the type of thing Microsoft should do well. Five years ago, you couldn't build this type of unit for any price. Today, it's cost effective for business and pretty soon, it could be consumer-ready. By leveraging their expertise in software, Microsoft should be able to take the concept of personal computing to the next level. Forget Windows 8 and one more evolutionary OS play. Surface could change the way people can interact with a computer; it offers a very compelling vision of the future. Personally, I can't wait to get this stuff built into my next desk. Unfortunately, I doubt I ever will. Maybe I'm wrong and Surface will eventually re-surface, but right now it looks like another big idea gone abandoned.

Michael Gartenberg is a partner at Altimeter Group. His weblog can be found at Contact him at gartenberg AT gmail DOT com. Views expressed here are his own.

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