A novel idea occurred to me today. I was browsing the Internet, seeing what was going on in the world, and I thought to myself "Tom, why not write a blog entry that doesn't involve the iPhone?" Which is where this rather amusing promo video from Microsoft came in...
Even if you don't watch the whole thing you owe it to yourself to jump to the 1 minute 5 second mark to check out the horribly lame "Flirt" application. As I watched this I couldn't help but remember this quote from the famous Surface Parody Video...
The future is here and its not an iPhone...Its a big ass table! - Microsoft Surface Parody Video
For the record, though its terribly overpriced and probably too early to matter, I do think Microsoft Surface technology is the future. Or if not it specifically a technology a lot like it. The problem right now is that we've become too used to looking at cyberspace through screens and it clouds our view of how that interaction should ideally work.
Its a tunnel mentality where we've become so used to looking at cyberspace through tiny windows that we've forgotten the world behind those tiny windows is of infinite size. Like the submarine crew that has forgotten how vast the ocean is after months of looking at it through tiny port holes we've put the vastness of cyberspace into a small box and forgotten it can exist outside that box.
I've never been a big fan of Bill Gates' predictions (remember "The Road Ahead") but I couldn't agree more when he says that every physical surface will probably use this technology eventually. As cyberspace breaks out of those little screens I think we'll find ourselves more and more enveloped by it.
Microsoft's Touchwall begins to show some of that potential. Though the technology being used to produce it seems commercially unviable (as Microsoft pretty much admits by saying they won't market it as a product) the concept is there. An Infinite canvas from which to work from. A work surface that literally goes on forever.
That's the promise of Microsoft's Surface. Instead of sitting down at a monitor you'll call up a window on your wall or coffee table and work from that. Beyond that you'll be able to change the very appearance of your home at will as display technology reaches the point of photo realism.
Don't get me wrong, this future is still a ways off. The materials need to become sturdier while simultaneously becoming much, much cheaper. That's going to take a while. But the promise of the technology is too great for it not to eventually happen.
The problem Microsoft has now is that they're way ahead of the curve which makes Surface a technology lost in time. Being years ahead of the competition only counts if you can turn that advanced technology into a viable product with an upgrade path. Surface is advanced right now but the technology will easily be cloned by everyone by the time the future I described arrives.
Microsoft's challenge right now is to turn it into something more impressive than a $10,000 arcade game while the future catches up to the technology. If they can't I suspect they'll join Xerox PARC in learning how great research and lofty concepts mean nothing if you can't turn them into something that can be sold.
All that said, I have to admit that seeing this technology has had a profound effect on me. I've recently started to adjust my thinking somewhat as a developer because of it. Product lifetimes can easily be 8-to-10 years in the corporate world which means that new technology will often have to be grafted onto those old solutions. So for me, as a developer, I feel obligated to start looking at ways the programs I write can be translated into increasingly bigger surfaces and how I can make UI designs that will scale up in size and interact with different forms of input(so users don't have to relearn a program if wall size screens become the norm some day).