Microsoft Surface, and Why It Didn’t Change Everything

By  |  Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 10:48 am

Jason Hiner of TechRepublic has an interesting theory: He thinks that the release of Apple’s iPhone and Microsoft’s Surface table in 2007 marks the moment that the fates of tech’s eternal archrivals diverged. Both products cleverly commercialized multi-touch input, a technology previously seen only in lab experiments and TED demos. But while the iPad and its offspring became some of the most successful gadgets of all time, (Surface clearly hasn’t lived up to expectations. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a Surface table in the wild.)

Surface was announced at the Wall Street Journal’s D conference in May 2007; I wrote about it at the time for Slate. But Microsoft first showed it to journalists months before at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. I was there; we had to sign an agreement stating we wouldn’t write about it until Microsoft was ready to unveil it.

The number of journalists at Microsoft’s CES event was small, but the hype was of Apple-like proportions. Before the company told us what it had been working on, a Microsoft executive talked vaguely about the future and products of epoch-shifting importance for something like twenty minutes, standing next to a big blocky something concealed under a black drape.

Unfortunately for Microsoft, its hush-hush press event was held shortly after Apple’s big iPhone announcement at Macworld Expo in San Francisco. (I think it was the same day, although I don’t remember for sure.) So when the Microsoft folk whisked the cloth away and showed off a Surface prototype, my first impression wasn’t that I was seeing something utterly unprecedented. It was more like “Hey, giant iPhone!”

Surface was and is neat, and I hoped that it would be a hit. But I didn’t have a great feeling about it from the start, in part because Microsoft didn’t seem to be dreaming big enough.

As I wrote at the time in that Slate piece:

And therein lies my one gigantic disappointment with this product: The idea may be magical, but most of its initial applications will be anything but. Other than the photo demo, in fact, most of Microsoft’s examples of Surface in action are mind-numbingly prosaic. It will help T-Mobile stores sell more ring tones! Look, it’s giving Sheraton the ability to market music downloads! Watch it guide high rollers around Caesars Palace!

The pricey Surface table–it was $5000 at first–has never managed to decouple itself from Microsoft’s ho-hum initial goals. The company wasn’t aiming to change the world, at least at first: It was trying to have an impact on certain sectors of the retail business.

For Microsoft, that was surprisingly unambitious. Whatever your feelings about the company, it’s usually wanted to put its creations in the hands of as many people as it possibly could, as quickly as it knew how.

So I still wonder: What if Microsoft, when it first got excited about multi-touch interfaces, had decided to invest money and effort in building a $500 multi-touch phone rather than a $5000 multi-touch table? It might have beat the iPhone to market, or at least showed up around the same time. Instead, the first serious iPhone competitor from Microsoft, Windows Phone 7, didn’t show up until late 2010, almost four years after Apple’s announcement.

I’m not saying that there were any circumstances under which a 2007 Microsoft multi-touch phone would have trumped the iPhone for usability, elegance, and general coherence. Actually, it might have been kind of scary. But it would surely have had a far bigger impact than Surface has had to date.

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8 Comments For This Post

  1. Digital Fruit Says:

    laughably, this product did so bad apparently, that I never even heard about it. I'd seen something like this built by HP and demoed in Disney land, but I'm not sure I ever even heard a name for them, they were just really cool tables, and no one seemed to care that much.

  2. Idiothunter Says:

    You idiot. The ones at Disney are Microsoft surfaces. They’re not made by HP.

  3. Busterone Says:

    I can see it now. The iPad shows up in 2010 and the MS execs says “That should kill it (Surface)!”.

  4. The_Heraclitus Says:

    Hard to carry one around with you. DOA

  5. Devin Henkel-Legare Says:

    I've seen them in a hotel in Chicago. Generally, they're being used as a traditional table by people who've put their laptops on top of them…

  6. Stacey Says:

    I guess, the TABLE idea didn't work out as good as the TABLET'S idea. Targeting the business sector with the 5000 USD ammunition? And what's the catch there, because I am hearing about it for the first time. Something tells me, much money went down the drain…

  7. Pat TOrmey Says:

    People are not seeing any Surface (II) units becasue developers cannot get any (q1 2012?). But that's not saying we are not getting ready. Surface development is done with the existing .Net Tools.
    We should probably wait until the hardware catches up before we start declaring Surface is a failure.

    Pat NH USA

  8. Eric Says:

    So I would agree that MS has not really taken this technology very far, but isn't that sort of their MO? They create a base and then expect developers and hardware manufacturers to create substance around it. Maybe that is why the sort of open development model is failing and Apple's closed development model is winning. I think your point around not thinking big enough is pretty spot on. If Microsoft is relying on developers and hardware manufacturers to use this to build products then they need to start pushing their vendors on the technology or start incentivizing it. Sorry maybe that isn't a word. Corning seems to have high hopes for their products relating to general surface computing displays. Check out you tube and search for Corning and "a day made of glass". I won't post the link but Maybe MS needs to get off their back sides and start pushing vendors to come together for their own benefits and stop letting Apple do all the integration and winning…..