Microsoft Surface: Why it Didn't Change Everything

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 multitouch 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.)

Microsoft Surface, and Why It Didn't Change Everything
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.

Microsoft Surface, and Why It Didn't Change Everything
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 multitouch interfaces, had decided to invest money and effort in building a $500 multitouch phone rather than a $5000 multitouch 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 multitouch 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.

This story, "Microsoft Surface: Why it Didn't Change Everything" was originally published by Technologizer.

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