Microsoft Surface: just a big touchscreen?

I hear this remark a lot. Whenever I show Surface to people there’s always one in the group who, after about 10 minutes, comments that Surface is just a big IPhone or a flat touch screen.

Of course, it’s not.

First of all, you can’t use a Surface unit out of the box to make phone calls. Second, the Surface unit is hardly portable where the IPhone most definitely is. To these commentators, Surface is like an IPhone but with less features.

Again, of course, it’s not.

Usually I can convince these skeptics that Surface isn’t anything like the IPhone. It’s even not “just a big touch screen”. It’s way more than that. People who think otherwise apparently fail to understand the nature and the philosophy of the Surface platform. In this post I will explain why these people are wrong and, more important, what the philosophy and power behind Surface is.

Surface is a table with a PC in it, not the other way around.

This might sound a bit childish, but in fact this statement puts the emphasis on the form factor. Surface is, well, a surface. Just like a table. You can put things on a surface, you can sit on it, you can even stand on it, rest your elbows on it, place you notepad on it, sit at with with other people, and so on. Nobody needs explaining what a table is, yet somehow I always seem to have to give permission to people to use the Surface as a table. People are very hesitant to place their coffee mugs on it, for example. Children do not have these reservations. They will treat the Surface for what it is: a table they can use just like any other table.

But let’s be honest: Surface is more than just a table. It is a table that can interact with the people sitting at it. It can respond to actions people take. The display can and will change according to what people are doing at the table. This offers a lot of possibilities!

Another question I get a lot is “Can we wall mount a Surface?”. The answer to that is “Yes, you can, but don’t even think about doing it.” Let’s be honest: if you have a big enough and sturdy enough wall, you technically could place the unit in the wall. But why would you? If it’s in the wall you cannot place objects on the unit anymore: everything will fall off. And if you put it in the wall you loose the table form factor, you reduce the Surface unit to a touch screen like system.

Let me repeat myself: the power of the the Surface unit is that people sit at it, interact with each other and let the screen interact with the people around it. This is something a normal (vertically mounted) touch screen does not allow you to do.

Surface is not a big IPhone.

Of course, it is not. People say this because they see the demo’s with the photos being resized and moved. That reminds me of the demo’s they’ve seen off the IPhone. The truth is that the IPhone and the Surface have as much in common as a, uhm, two things which aren’t related at all.

One is a phone, the other is a table. Yes, they both have a computer inside somewhere, but the goal and purpose of the two are completely different. The IPhone is a communications, and maybe even an entertainment device, where the Surface is a way for people to interact directly. Surface is massive multi touch, the IPhone is meant for one person at the time.  The list of differences is endless, the list of similarities is pretty short (it’s touch enabled, it has similar gestures for moving and resizing, and that’s about it).

Let’s never make this comparison again, it’s silly.

Surface is a way for people to communicate.

This, of course, is what Surface is all about. It can help people to communicate and to help in understanding each other. More important: it can help people to get the work done, whatever that work might be. It’s a smart table that can interact with you and your fellow co-workers, your customers, your partners or whomever sits at the table with you.

How you can achieve that level of communication and collaboration is something I’ll write about next time.

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Print | posted @ Friday, September 4, 2009 8:40 AM

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