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Microsoft Updates Surface, But Can It Gain Broad Appeal?

Looking to give its Surface table top device more functionality, Microsoft today released its first service pack with a new SDK that the company says will give developers more flexibility in adding more features.

The SDK that comes with the Surface developer unit, which costs about $15,000, has a set of APIs, samples and tools, as well as Visual Studio project templates that support both XNA and WPF user interface (UI) frameworks.

Among the new features for developers in SP1 are extended identity tag resources, extensions to the API which include a WPF library and menu controls, and a stress-testing tool.

Surface lets users sitting around the table access and manipulate visual content using a multi-touch interface. Released commercially last year, Surface functions like a kiosk for various verticals including health care, retail, hospitality, education and financial services. Among its early adopters are AT&T, which uses it in select retail stores, and Sheraton, which is rolling it out at its hotels.

While a niche offering, Microsoft is promoting Surface to show the work the company is doing to advance UI design and touch technology, which is a key component of the forthcoming Windows 7. But there are questions about what makes a viable application for Surface.

"The economics of the Microsoft Surface are still not clear. The device is expensive, heavy, not widely available and, despite looking like a coffee table, is not really an effective piece of furniture," said Marc Jacobs, a director with New York-based Lab49 Inc., in an e-mail exchange.

Despite his doubts, Jacobs said he believes Surface has enough potential that the consulting firm has developed several demos for Microsoft based on scenarios that can be used in financial services, including one called "Tracking the S&P 500," which is slated to be installed at the Microsoft Executive Briefing Center in Redmond, Wash. later this quarter.

The new WPF controls in SP1 include a preconfigured library to organize content that users can scroll through consisting of categorized groups of content, said Robert Levy, Microsoft's program manager for Surface product development. "Our partners can build things with similar user experiences that will not only speed up their development by not having to recreate the wheel...but it will also create consistency for end users," Levy said.

Another WPF control that has been added is a menu control. Similar to a traditional context menu, the new menu control is only visible in the UI when a user wants to see it, Levy said. "If you put an element menu on a photo, we wouldn't show you the button to open the element menu all the time, which would be distracting," Levy said. "But once you start interacting with a photo, a subtle button appears on the edge of the photo that will let you expand the menu and drill into options. We are driving users more toward gestural interactions without taking away the visual hints to them of what we expect them to do."

The newly added stress-testing tool is important for applications where there are numerous multi-touch inputs occurring simultaneously in an application. Accessed through a command-line interface, it allows developers to find bugs. "It will flood your application with simulated inputs," Levy said. "You see if you can crash it and launch into Visual Studio to investigate what caused the issue."

As for the new tags, Levy said identity tags in SP1 are 128-bit. Microsoft only supported 8-bit tags in the previous release, limiting support for 256 unique objects.

"We would run into collisions when there were 256 unique values. Now we can have partners who...each generate unique identity tags" which can be printed as loyalty cards, for example, Levy said.

Improvements to the UI include modifications to the "access points," which are the graphical buttons on the four corners of Surface. The changes are designed to improve discoverability for users, Levy said. The system can now be programmed for single application mode, as well.

The SDK, which was originally localized for the United States and Canada, also now supports about a dozen other countries, primarily in Europe.

While he said the SDK offers some important improvements, Lab49's Jacobs warns that Surface is a much different user experience than a touch-based PC in that it is intended for multiple users. "As the excellent Microsoft Surface design guide points out, designing a user experience for multi-user is quite different than for single-user," Jacobs said.

"The user experience designer cannot depend on user orientation (which way is up for the application when users sit all around it), user continuity (when one user stops using the application and another user starts) or even user isolation (whether two simultaneous touches on the Surface belong to one user or two). Throwing these assumptions out the window radically subverts the enterprise design patterns that developers have become accustomed to."

About the Author

Jeffrey Schwartz is editor of Redmond magazine and also covers cloud computing for Virtualization Review's Cloud Report. In addition, he writes the Channeling the Cloud column for Redmond Channel Partner. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreySchwartz.

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