by Laurianne McLaughlin

Microsoft Debuts Touch-Driven Tabletop PC

May 30, 20074 mins
Enterprise Applications

Microsoft today unveiled a PC design full of surprises: It’s a touchy, feely computer, about the size of a small table for a living room. While sitting at the “table,” you navigate by pressing your fingers on a flat screen on the top. This device, dubbed “Milan,” won’t revolutionize the home electronics market yet — but it does show that some people are thinking fresh ideas about how we will use PCs and the Net.

In the works for several years, Microsoft’s “Milan” project stayed remarkably quiet. As my IDG News Service colleague Elizabeth Montalbano reported this morning, Milan takes advantage of wireless and touchscreen technology to let users interact with a 30-inch horizontal table-top display.

What should strike you about this idea — an Internet PC with no wires, no mouse, and a big, touch-driven display? Apple hasn’t done this yet. While Microsoft’s Zune will forever be a me-too to the iPod, Apple has no Milan equivalent.

Microsoft’s Bill Gates has been talking about new ways for people to interact with PCs for years, but this device is one of the first solid pieces of evidence to emerge. Microsoft now has a specific team in its Entertainment and Devices division working on this idea of “surface computing” devices, Montalbano reports.

Why might people want to use a Milan device? Imagine sitting at this kind of table to work with photos, or watch video clips. Milan can talk and trade files via Bluetooth with phones or cameras.

The first place you might see and use Milan is in a Las Vegas hotel: Microsoft says it’s a bit early to sell such a gadget into homes (though Microsoft has long fought for a chic and central spot in your living room, and will no doubt pursue that quest as time moves on and manufacturing costs fall.) Microsoft is marketing Milan first to entertainment, travel and retail customers. According to Microsoft, $5000 to $10,000 Milan units will hit production status in 2008. Early customers include Harrah’s Entertainment, Starwood Hotels and Resorts and T-Mobile USA.

Harrah’s plans to roll out a custom app to let VIP visitors make reservations and place orders at clubs; T-Mobile will use Milan units to help customers configure phones in stores, Montalbano reports.

Why do I think Milan deserves attention? First of all, it’s not pie in the sky or stuck in a research lab somewhere. It’s the first commercially-ready machine with this type of attractive, touchscreen display that I’ve seen. If you are in a travel, entertainment or retail company, you can probably envision many different ways customers could utilize such a device.

On a technology level, think about the absolute sense of simply touching a screen instead of using a pointing device or a mouse. Think about using this kind of screen to retouch your digital photos: Talk about wiping the wrinkles away.

Displays have been a limiting factor for consumer electronics for a long time. (It’s hard to bring down manufacturing costs, and there are a limited number of display manufacturers.)  This touchscreen must have some unique materials breakthroughs: I have no idea how you keep this type of display clean, but I’m interested to learn how they protect these displays from fingers carrying traces of suntan lotion, not to mention the occasional spilled Mojito, in Vegas.

Now, think farther than Milan. Imagine what would happen if touchscreen displays became affordable enough that you could integrate them with many kinds of consumer and enterprise computing devices. Many, many ease-of-use issues for software come into play here. 

Surface computing. It’s an idea that feels pretty interesting to me. Now let’s hear about what such a device could do for your customers.