Scratching the Surface

Microsoft's tabletop PC is certainly eye-catching but is it actually useful?

If you've been lucky enough to catch the first episode of our new weekly web TV show "Dialogue Box", you'll be familiar with our Axis of Awesome. Rather than taking the usual "marks-out-of-ten" approach to reviewing kit, we ask two pithy and pertinent questions of new enterprise tech: is it useful and is it cool? A hearty "yes" to both questions is rare, as is a double "no", but, from a business-technology viewpoint, a surprising amount of utilitarian product has unexpected depths of coolness.

Over the years, Microsoft has provided ample fodder that warrants rating on our axis, including its ill-fated Smart Display, described by one our reviewers as "not so much a tablet as a suppository". This week, the company unveiled its latest foray into the hardware world, in the shape of the tabletop PC — codenamed "Milan", but officially known as "Surface". Tempting though it is, and not just because of the pun, to write it off as another shallow piece of Microsoft thinking, the company's Entertainment and Devices Unit does deserve some kudos for taking a different look at computerising our lives.

However, as usual for tech marketing, the background story around the development of the device is more spin than straight. According to Microsoft, the idea sprang from the minds of its inventors in 2001 — ignoring the fact that multitouch technology similar to that in Milan has been in development since at least 1984. Nor has it gone away since then: New York University professor Jeff Han has launched a start-up, Perceptive Pixel, to commercialise the technology; Apple has it in the iPhone; and anyone who saw the movie Minority Report will already be familiar with the interface.

So where does Surface rate on the Axis of Awesome? Microsoft has hopes that it will take off as a consumer home-device — but, so far, the $10,000 (£5,051) price tag means that it's businesses such as casinos and retailers who've shown an interest. Even if the price drops, this particular Surface form-factor is unlikely to break out of this niche. But others are being planned which may have more useful applications. For now Milan earns a "quite-cool-but-not-very-useful" rating. So far, Surface's beauty is just skin deep.