By Jon Fortt
March 26, 2008
Microsoft Surface is a tabletop computer that’s controlled by physical touch instead of a mouse or keyboard. Image: Microsoft

Microsoft’s tabletop computer could appear in homes in three years or less, the executive in charge of its development said this week.

Since unveiling the Microsoft Surface product last year, the company has gotten plenty of feedback from businesses and enthusiasts who want to get their hands on the technology, said Tom Gibbons, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s

Specialized Devices and Applications business. And Gibbons said he feels confident that the touch-based computer could be affordable enough for consumers in three years or less. “In the three-year time window, we absolutely see how to get there,” Gibbons said. “If we can beat that, we’ll try to beat that.”

Surface is a computer built into a coffee table, and its 30-inch screen is controlled by touch rather than by a mouse or keyboard. (The complex manufacturing, of course, makes it expensive — the commercial version will be priced between $5,000 and $10,000) Though the concept is similar to Apple’s

touchscreen iPhone, the implementation of the technology is quite different. Surface works using digital cameras under the glass, which track movements above.

Because of that design, Surface can be used to track objects, not just gestures. For example, in one Microsoft demonstration, special coasters are used on the Surface table to show how it might identify a drink in a bar, and allow a patron to reorder digitally.

Gibbons said Surface has plenty of buzz; Microsoft has gotten 2,000 inquiries from 50 governments or corporations, stretching across 25 industries. But for now, his focus is on getting the first units shipped out to customers. “We’re running a couple of months later than I’d like with our deployments,” Gibbons said. The reason: Because a tabletop interface is so new, customers have needed extra help designing custom software. “While I was hoping we’d have something out now, we’ll definitely have something out in the next couple of months.”

Practicality is another question. While the possibilities for gaming, retail and hospitality are pretty obvious, it’s not clear where Surface would go beyond that. As JupiterResearch analyst Michael Gartenberg put it in his first look at the technology last May, “Yes it’s a PC; but you’d never know it was running Windows, and while it could run Office, that’s not something it’s ever likely to do.” Of course, Gartenberg meant that as a compliment, but it hints at other questions of practicality. What do you do, for instance, when your digital coffee table crashes?

But those are questions for later. Now it’s about the thrill of innovation, which Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer seemed to feel for Surface at a meeting with analysts last month when he said the company will push to get a consumer version ready.

“We’ve had more pushback to get a consumer version of the Surface in-market than you can shake a stick at,” Ballmer said. “We will follow our noses in terms of consumer interest and make a set of investments that try to take some steps toward making Surface a consumer product, and also scaling up the industrial design.”

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