Is Microsoft just skimming the Surface of multi-touch?

Sections: Features, iPhone/iPod touch/iPad, iPod, iPod touch, Operating Systems, Originals, Windows

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Surface Photo Sharing App

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?

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  • Nikitas Magel

    Aaron, this was a beautifully written piece. It was very refreshing to have read what amounted to an essay that clearly entailed critical thinking and focused evaluation on a specific facet of technology. In an ocean of uninspired, shoot-from-the-hip blog-oriented smatterings, it's nice to see an instance of solid writing being published. Thank you for reaching out with your insight!

  • Henno

    All of Zune, Windows Mobile phones and Xbox 360 run a form of Windows CE (a basic embedded form of Windows (mostly a kernel plus basic API stuff), which can be adapted to many devices. But they do have a diferent code base from the Windows NT based desktop OS'es. But who knows, they might converge them later…..

  • Boca Boi 786

    I don't know…this reminds me of the high tech stuff you see on shows like CSI Miami

    stuff that is obviously staged…and even tho it would be a great idea the cost of something like this would be way out of the average persons budgets…especially in the economical climate we are enduring now…

    I just don't see this be something that revolutionizes the computer market just for the fact that something is revolutionary like the iphone has been…has to be something that can be marketed to the masses

    and I don't see that being something that will happen any time soon

    now I get that technology comes down in price regularly and at some point it could become mainstream…but having a coffee table like the picture at the top shows…takes the entire sense of the coffee table away…and doesn’t Apple have the multi-touch patented?

    so I would expect something like this, that is so amazing coming from the brainiacs in Cupertino and not from the idiots at windows…they still don't get that we need our computers to just work and not have to concentrate on protecting it 24/7…and that’s what we have with Macs they just work and we don't have to stress about if something is going to happen to it just from using it.

    we do have to worry about criminals trying to take them from us…but I can deal with a human interaction…it's just surfing the net and being scared all the time that I just don't get!

    I have macs that are almost 10 years old that are still running as good as when they were new…and my mothers HP Media Center 17 inch Laptop just died on her for no apparent reason…she is having nothing but problems using a borrowed laptop because she can't afford to get a new one…this is just wrong…hers is 3-4 years old maybe…and down for the count…it's very unfair

    my youngest macs right now are 2006 models that still run strong and do what needs to be done with no hassles…and that is how it should be…we should have to replace a computer because we want something new…not because it just dies with no reason

    I have ranted long enough…I just don't think something that great can be affordable and done right by Microsoft…do you?

  • Aaron Kraus

    @Nikitas: Many thanks! Always nice to know somebody enjoys reading as much as I enjoy writing. And kudos on Vinikitas – vinterviews has made it into my bookmarks folder!

    @ Henno: I think the real problem that MS encounters with their CE devices is sprawl – the platforms are so varied that it is difficult to create a cohesive strategy (think about pinching an image on the iPhone and MacBook trackpad). Separate development tracks have led to incompatibilities like Zune Marketplace and XBOX Live. Converging the code base would definitely be easier, but would signal a major shift in backwards compatibility – maybe Steve Ballmer will be bold enough to lead that change?

    @Boca Boi: Wow! I know how you feel – I've got a Mac Plus from 1987 that still runs like a dream (albeit a very limited, pixelated, greyscale dream). Your mother's situation makes me want to see a follow-up to one of the Laptop Hunter ads showing the same users two years after purchase: is the computer still running as well as a Mac would, or does it need replacing (effectively doubling the cost of the computer)?

  • Richard Monson-Haefel

    Hi Aaron,

    This is an excellent article. In a way Surface is going to be a footnote in the history of human-computer interaction, not because large multi-touch surfaces don't have a future but because Microsoft Surface has too high of a price point for mass consumers and not high enough for custom installations (you can make some real money putting up things like the multi-touch wall at Cannes).

    I'm a multi-touch developer who has done both Surface and iPhone work professionally. I love working on the Surface but I do understand that its a stepping stone not an end itself. I think the Surface provides an excellent platform on which Microsoft can launch its focus on multi-touch in Windows 7. Multi-touch on the desktop has rather dubious value but in other form factors multi-touch for larger devices makes a lot of sense. For example, multi-touch screens on everything from home entertainment systems to the walls of office lobbies and drafting tables of artists and engineers will become pretty common (I believe) in the next 10 years. You won't need to buy an expensive surface computer to make that happen – Windows 7 will provide all the power you need and can scale from medium size devices (tablets, netbooks) to very large installations (walls and tables).

    Surface is probably not going to last longer than 2012 as a product, but Windows 7 will being what I believe will be a new era in human-computer interaction. What I find really disappointing is that Apple didn't introduce multi-touch screens this summer. Perhaps they will in time for the x-mass season. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a tablet.

    All the best,


  • gandharva