Microsoft is really good at dreaming about the future; their track record on delivering it is not quite so shining. Seen ubiquitous Tablet PCs? Anybody remember SPOT? (No, it’s not a dog, it was the Smart Personal Object Technology that Microsoft envisioned us all using to read stock quotes on our watches. Seriously.) Okay, they kind of called the current netbook trend (a little early), but they were wrong about most of the details of what was then called the Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC); they envisioned something between a smartphone and a netbook that was too small to be really useful and too big to be really portable. Microsoft also has a track record of blowing smokescreens to distract attention from gaps in their own product lines while they work to crush competition, and that list is exhausting in length: Cairo and Longhorn, with all their promised glamorous features, top the list. Given this track record, it is virtually not impossible to pose the question: what impact, if any, will Microsoft’s Surface have on everyday computing?
When you get right down to it, the computer-user interface has seen no major advances since the introduction of the mouse in the 1980s. Major advances in technology/capabilities have been made, but for the most part we still type stuff on keyboards and point & click things on the screen with a mouse/pen tablet/other mouse-equivalent device. The computer desktop, and most programs, present metaphors: files to double click, page turn buttons/scroll bars, and buttons that make some action occur. Microsoft and Apple both delivered touch-sensitive GUIs in handheld devices, with Windows CE and the Newton OS, respectively, in the mid 1990s. These UIs, however, were not really revolutionary; instead of mousing to an on-screen object, you touch it with a stylus. With the introduction of the iPhone, Apple is taking a step in UI design—all the multi-touch gestures are real world gestures. The metaphor of interacting with some elements is metaphor no longer; the user actually flicks a page to move to the next one. But this is only a small evolutionary step. There are still buttons to tap to launch apps or make configuration changes. Baby steps, in other words, while Windows Mobile is still stuck on the stylus as a mouse replacement.
Intro the Surface, which Microsoft promises will “[break] down traditional barriers between people and technology, changing the way people interact with all kinds of everyday information — from photos to maps to menus.” It looks, on the surface (sorry, but as usual Microsoft has burdened us with a name that makes conversation challenging—think “Word” and “Office”) like a brand new way of interacting with a computer. There is a great ars technica article about a design firm, Teehan+Lax, and their thoughts on the challenges of developing applications for this new Surface interface. The real problem that they see is one mainly of orientation: typical computers have up, down, left, and right on the screen, and one (maybe two) users. Surface allows a full 360 degrees of freedom, meaning that the number of users and their viewing angle is only limited by the size of the actual table (and maybe by how well Vista, which underpins Surface, can deal with that much input). How would two users, on opposite sides of a table, use Word, for instance? The text will be upside down for one user, as will all the tool bars. Writing a letter suddenly becomes a study in hieroglyphics and hand-eye coordination!
In theory, this challenge could be overcome by each user getting his own window to work with, but that just leaves us with a traditional computer and a huge screen. Hardly revolutionary. Some have suggested that content be the central focus of the computing environment, and UI could be personalized—each user gets hi own toolbar/menubar/whatever other interaction. But this does not cover the basic difficulty that the user may need text/media oriented to his viewing angle. Just because I have my very own text formatting toolbar in Word doesn’t mean I can apply Arial Bold 12 pt. to some text if it is upside down! Upon closer inspection, under the surface of Surface (just can’t help myself!) there is a dearth of substance (though there are some cool applications for this technology, no doubt). And while the product itself is real, and hence not vaporware, there is a strong odor of smokescreen about the world-changing credentials of the whole Surface idea that just can not be denied!
Microsoft would like to promote the advances that Surface brings as advances to the overall Windows ecosystem. There is just one tiny little problem: the devices where multi-touch and gesture-based computing are truly useful, like phones and media players, will not directly benefit from any of the technology in Surface. Windows Mobile, Zune, and the XBox all run their own, independent operating systems, while Surface is running a variant of Vista. This stands in stark contrast to Apple’s development strategy, which places a light version of OS X on iPhones, iPod Touches, and AppleTV (even though marketing jargon calls it iPhone OS, it’s still an OS X variant). This means that any mutli-touch improvements in one device can easily be ported to any of the others. And Apple’s approach of evolving multi-touch where it makes sense, rather than attempting to totally upend traditional computing paradigms, is introducing more fundamental changes in user interaction than Microsoft’s more heavy-handed approach in Surface.
Which brings me back to the main point: is Microsoft really pushing the envelope here, or are we supposed to follow the flashy effects while the man behind the curtain struggles to make truly useful product enhancements? In reality, does Surface just have a flashy—albeit niche—role to fill in computing as a big touch screen? Or is it the next big thing? Your thoughts?