To be sure, any over-the-top Microsoft product launch invites skepticism. For all its software dominance through the years, not all of Microsoft's bold initiatives have paid off: Think everything from .Net Web services to Portable Media Center entertainment devices. Those and other efforts have been attempts to reshuffle or extend the Windows flagship or require partners to use more Windows servers.
Even tech analysts impressed with the surface computing concept believe it will take time to catch on. "In terms of short-term practical applications or things like contributions to Microsoft's bottom line, it's going to have a negligible effect at first," says Matt Rosoff, an analyst at Directions On Microsoft. "It needs the full Microsoft ecosystem of applications developers and hardware developers."
Microsoft developed the software and is building the hardware in the early going. Gates says the company will license the software to partners interested in producing machines.
There are reasons to believe Surface may have a favorable outcome. The technology is blowing away partners and tech analysts who have been treated to demonstrations. "People have been asking if Microsoft is still an innovator. I think this silences critics," says JupiterResearch Vice President Michael Gartenberg.
Industry analyst Roger Kay of Endpoint Technologies Associates concurs. "This is game-changing and will cause companies like Apple and Google to go back on their heels. I try not to gush too much. I think this is a really big deal." Apple's reaction to surface computing may well come up at the D conference this evening, where Gates and Apple CEO Steve Jobs are scheduled to make a joint public appearance. Apple, of course, uses multitouch screen technology in the upcoming iPhone.
Taking a tour
Microsoft's technology has to be seen to be best understood. Think of it as a bridge between physical and virtual worlds and something out of Steven Spielberg's Minority Report.
"We all sat around the table and watched the demonstration, and my jaw dropped," says Hoyt Harper II, Sheraton's senior vice president for brand management.
In-and-out-of-home scenarios in which the Surface computers will likely be deployed:
•Photos and music. Drop a Wi-Fi-capable digital camera onto the table and watch as pictures spill out onto the surface. You can "grab" the photos with your hands — enlarge and drag them and order prints and postcards without leaving your chair.
Similarly, you can browse through album covers on the table, purchase the songs you want, and drag them into specific playlists on a Microsoft Zune portable music player, or presumably any other Wi-Fi-capable player.
•The restaurant experience. A waiter places a wine glass on the table. Instantly, you'll get information about the vintage, including pictures of the vineyard and suggested food pairings. You might even be able to book a trip to the region where the wine came from. The table could also be smart enough to know when your glass needs to be refilled.
And forget about fighting over the check. Each person can drag the menu items he or she ordered onto their own personalized bill, using an on-the-surface slider to automatically calculate the tip