Microsoft still just re-Surfacing Windows
Long-planned escape from beige boxes
Analysis Microsoft's announcement of Surface Computing, basically a PC built into a coffee table, might indeed represent a new paradigm in computing technology, but for Microsoft it's just another attempt at getting its software out from the beige boxes under our desks to somewhere, anywhere, else.
Microsoft long ago came to dominate beige boxes, so market expansion involves either getting more beige boxes out there, or getting Microsoft out of its self-imposed prison.
Leaps in development intended to make computers more friendly (and thus sell to a greater demographic) have gone badly: Microsoft Bob was widely derided as being resource-hungry and patronising, though only with Vista has his shadow finally been removed from Windows (in the form of the dog that accompanies the search dialogue in XP).
But it is Microsoft's attempts to escape from the PC entirely of which Surface Computing forms the most recent part.
Back in 1998 we were treated to the story of Kayla Blau and her latest friend:
Seven-year-old Kayla Blau has a new second-best friend. She's smart, but not a show-off. Talkative, but not someone who hogs the conversation. Best of all, she likes a lot of the same activities that Kayla does, and she gives great hugs.
Kayla had fallen for an animatronic D W (children's TV character; Arthur's sister). These soft toys were launched by Microsoft in 1997 under the brand "Actimates", and responded to actions such as squeezing their hands or covering their eyes, and could interact with, and sing along to, TV shows.
The technology was based around an RF-transmitter module which picked up a special signal encoded with the broadcast or VHS recording. Several US TV shows broadcast the signal for a while, though the toys could also work with a PC running appropriate software.
D W came a year after the first "Actimate", Barney the dinosaur. The Teletubbies were slated for Actimate too, though only La-La and Po made it before the project died out.
Michael Newman, then of the Post-Gazette, pointed out just how terrifying Actimates could have become: "A fast-food chain, for instance, could use an interactive toy to promote its latest specials. It could even be programmed to yelp, beep, or otherwise make a ruckus whenever it passed near a restaurant."
Anyone with children can breathe easy that such a vision of the future never came to pass.
Compact audio cassette for Windows
Around the same time as Actimates, Microsoft launched its Auto PC, a computer that slotted into the dashboard of a car and featured everything the driver could want from Windows - early versions even featured a compact audio cassette player.
While Auto PC generated lots of jokes about crashing and system errors, it didn't generate much in the way of applications or devices to run them on. So it was relaunched in 2000 with a snappier name: Microsoft Windows CE for Automotive 2.0:
"Consumers are looking for even greater value from their vehicle, and the ability to merge home, office, and vehicle will greatly improve their quality of life," said David Peace, who at the time was a vice president at Visteon.
In July 2004, Microsoft announced that Fiat would be embedding Microsoft Auto (as the platform had become known) into some of its cars, and in January Microsoft announced a deal with Ford to supply Microsoft Auto for some of its models.
These days, the platform is limited to playing back audio from "popular mobile music devices" and hands-free telephony, but Microsoft still has great plans for equipping our cars with its software, even if it takes another decade or two.
Windows around the home
While Auto PC continues to develop, and gain the occasional customer, not every technology has been so successful.
Mira was a project to allow PC users to pick up their screen and take it with them around the house. The screen would be connected over Wi-Fi, and interaction would be touch-sensitive.
"Mira does for monitors what the cordless handset did for telephones", Steve Ballmer said in 2002, when the concept was launched and devices were predicted for Christmas. We were pretty dismissive at the time, but the fact that Mira was a technology in search of a problem is probably what killed it.
Several manufacturers were encouraged to make Mira (or Smart Display, as it became known) devices, and LG even persisted when Microsoft pulled the plug on the project in 2004.
Mira was always intended as a consumer technology; companies were supposed to buy Tablet PCs, but the biggest screen in most consumer's homes has never seen a Microsoft logo.
In the late 90s, everyone was convinced that internet access on a TV was going to change the world, and Microsoft was no exception. It bashed Windows CE about until it fitted into the Dreamcast, Sega's games console, which was launched to great acclaim in 1998 and then trounced by the Playstation 2 in 1999, despite featuring the unparalleled Chu Chu Rocket.
1997 saw Microsoft buying WebTV - a company specialising in presentation of internet content on TV screens. Later rebranded as "MSN TV" the service is still just-about around. Using cut-down PC hardware and Windows CE, MSN TV2 can provide basic internet browsing and work as a media player for content on other PCs around the home.
But the 90s were a heady time, when anything seemed possible: even Microsoft software in the one arena where security and stability are the only factors that matter.
Microsoft in your pocket?
Getting Windows onto a credit card was never going to be easy - there's only a tiny processor and little in the way of memory, and Windows' advantages in ease of use and broad device support would be negated by the complete lack of user interface and standardised hardware.
But back in 1998 Mondex was pushing electronic cash, and JavaCard was neither stable nor secure, so Microsoft saw another opportunity to escape its beige boxes, even if it was to become embedded in plastic.
The original idea for a modular OS, which would be compiled into an image for each deployment, was scheduled for January 1999 but dumped in 2001. It turned out to be much easier to provide APIs allowing developers to work with any underlying platform, rather than trying to squeeze Windows onto a plastic sheet.
Windows Smartphone - a success story
In the light of the many and varied attempts by Microsoft to get its software into devices of every shape and size, it's hard to judge the smartphone as anything but a huge success. It may have taken a few versions, and may still not be perfect, but it is deployed on millions of devices around the world: which is more than can be said for any of the other forms we've looked at here.
Surface Computing may get Microsoft into the coffee-table form factor; but either way you can be sure it won't be the last time we're talking its Shawshank Redemption-style tapping away, that will, eventually, break it out of its beige prison. ®