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Surface computers: debunking Microsoft and Han

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Letters My recent article 'Why Microsoft innovation is only Surface deep' prompted a number of Reg readers to pick up their keyboards in anger. I had anticipated knee-jerk claims of gratuitous "MS bashing", but these aside, the feedback has mostly been supportive.

Gary Herbert perhaps best encapsulated the indignant mood of Reg readers, when he wrote, "I can't believe MS has the balls to call it innovation".

Many readers were also surprised that so many news sources such as The Guardian, Observer, BBC Online News, and many blogs have refused to veer from the mantra of the Microsoft press release, despite so much prior art being only a Google search away.

Microsoft - having its cake, eating its cake

The concluding paragraph did however cause a certain amount of controversy. I wrote:

..."Microsoft said it aimed to produce cheaper versions for homes within three to five years". And despite the sterling work of the likes of Philips et al, Microsoft have also claimed to be "the first major technology company to bring surface computing to market in a commercially ready product". These conflicting statements seem to raise question marks over quite how far Microsoft have actually got...."

Ian Wellock asked, "How on Earth is that conflicting? They raise no question marks about anything, they support each other 100%, and actually seem to be quite truthful regarding timelines, for once." His sentiment was echoed by reader Andy Iles.

Let me explain.

A detailed exegesis of Microsoft press releases does not make particularly good copy, so for the sake of brevity, it all comes down to what Microsoft mean by the word "market". If they mean tiny niche markets like casinos, then their second statement is untrue - there are plenty of companies with similar systems in the pipeline. If they are, as I am sure their shareholders and the media believe, a major technology company producing mass-market products, then the first statement suggests that what they actually have at the moment is a beta prototype that they intend to market test at some point in the future. Again making the second statement problematic.

Remember, the reason why the international media lap up Microsoft press releases is because it is assumed that Microsoft innovations will one day affect every home. Not just the domiciles of gambling addicts.

A reader also pointed out that rear-projection interfaces are not necessarily enormous, and that in fact Sony's new generation of rear-projection TV screens are actually "tiny". Unfortunately, the "tiny" Sony KDF-E42A11E 42-inch rear-projection TV is more than a foot deep and is 25Kg of glass, metal, and electronics. And there's still no room inside for the system of infrared cameras and lenses that you would need to turn the TV into a Surface.

The hard boundaries of physics and geometry prevented the cathode ray tube from evolving into a completely flat and portable technology, and it has been superseded by the LCD. For the same reasons rear-projection devices will suffer a similar fate, and will not "simply mature for use on the desktop" as reader Stuart Smith hopes.

Mr Smith is correct that an important contribution that Microsoft and other developers can make is to adapt their operating systems to enable and make use of multi-touch interaction. These developments are to be very much welcomed as some of us move beyond the constraints of keyboards and mice.

But here, too, there lies another prior art problem for Microsoft.

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