Microsoft had an unusually kick-ass event this week. They trotted out the next version of Windows, which is called Windows 10.
The OS looks like a winner. (No word on what happened to "Windows 9" -- my guess is that it wouldn't have gone over big in the German market. Windows? Nein!)
The company focused on compelling integrations between desktop and mobile versions of Windows, as well as integrations between Windows 10 and Xbox One.
They trotted out a compelling new browser, code-named "Spartan."
But the clear hit was an augmented-reality system called HoloLens. (HoloLens looks like the virtual reality glasses depicted in Back to the Future II. The "future" in that movie was the year 2015!)
When you see the HoloLens video Microsoft produced, you can see why everyone was dazzled. Especially the press.
The Verge called HoloLens "intriguing." Ars Technica called it "magical." Gizmodo called it "incredible."
The experience was all these things. However, it's not all that interesting as a product. And the reason is that it's not a product. Not even close. Microsoft's HoloLens may be three, four or five years out. We don't know.
HoloLens is a research product. Microsoft has been developing stunning research projects like this for 20 years. I've seen Microsoft Research text-to-speech technology that was perfect, and could be spoken in anyone's voice. The demo did various celebrities. I've seen Microsoft Research projects that used cameras to create real-time animated avatars to replace video chats. I've seen Microsoft research that included a self-learning, artificial intelligence system that mapped dictionaries to understand the connections between words and concepts and thereby "understand" the world. And all this was 15 years ago.
In the past, they never showed off such amazing projects in public, nor did these projects move on to become products available to consumers.
What's different now is that CEO Satya Nadella has decided to boost Microsoft's excitement factor by showing one of their killer research projects at a major event. But there's no evidence -- zero! -- that Microsoft has figured out how to get their great research into shipping products.
By the time HoloLens does become a shipping product, such technology will be a commonplace banality. Dozens or perhaps hundreds of companies, universities and software developers are working on exactly this kind of augmented reality system, including a well-funded startup called Magic Leap, which is almost certainly far ahead of Microsoft.
If I had to, I'd bet that HoloLens will be the "Zune" of augmented reality systems -- nice, but far too little, too late.
Meanwhile, Microsoft demonstrated something else that was truly revolutionary.
Why Surface Hub was the real star of the show
The real star of the show this week was Microsoft Surface Hub, a 4K, big-screen Windows 10 computer for enterprises.
The Surface Hub comes in two sizes: a big-screen 55-in. computer and a very big-screen 84-in. device.
The Surface Hub can be controlled with multi-touch, voice, in-the-air gestures, pen and keyboard. It's got sensors galore, including two wide-angle 1080p cameras, microphone, motion sensors and touch sensors.
And the interfaces are advanced. The multi-touch technology, for example, can recognize 100 touch points at once and precisely. Five people can be touching it on one side while several people are drawing with the pen on the other.
To start using it, you simply walk up to it. The Surface Hub knows you're there. Just choose between three options: Call, WhiteBoard or Connect.
It's a Windows 10 machine, so it ships with Word, Excel and PowerPoint, plus the OneNote whiteboard and Skype for Business. (At minimum, it's a full-fledged PC, video-conferencing system, phone, presentation system, TV and white board -- it's basically everything you might find in a meeting room besides a table and chairs, including the assistant (of course Surface Hub will be a great Cortana device).
The Microsoft Surface, the tablet, stole its name from the Surface project, which was a big-screen TV. Then an app group stole the "Surface" branding for a pen-configuration app called Surface Hub for the Surface tablet.
Now, the big-screen people at Microsoft have stolen the name back by calling the new computer system the Surface Hub.
Surface Hub comes from Microsoft's Perceptive Pixel group, which has been shipping giant touch screens for years to the military, media and others. Microsoft acquired Perceptive Pixel in 2012. Those "Magic Walls" used by CNN are Perceptive Pixel computers. The CEO and founder of that company was Jeff Han, a visionary pioneer in the field of large multi-touch computers. Today Han is general manager of Perceptive Pixel hardware.
And guess what? Han uses his big-screen touch computer at an angle, like a drafting table, not on a wall or vertically mounted on a stand.
That's the future of big-screen computing. It's not a "desktop computer." The computer replaces the desk entirely.
Microsoft is targeting Surface Hubs at enterprises because they will initially be too expensive for consumers. But give it a year or two, and the prices will drop and consumers will start buying them.
I believe they will replace TVs or, looking at it another way, TVs will get PC operating systems and multi-touch.
It's worth noting also that only touch-computing and other close usage patterns justify any screen resolution higher than 4K. At CES this year, we saw monitors reaching the 8K level, which is overkill for watching TV. From a couch-to-TV distance, it's almost impossible to detect the difference between 4K and 8K. However, if you're going to use the screen for close-up use (as you can use the Surface Hub), the super high-resolution screens pay off.
The giant-screen touch PC form factor is a revolutionary new computing platform that will become pervasive in the years ahead.
For now, Microsoft's Surface Hub is more about work than play. But it's got one quality that the HoloLens doesn't have: It's a product, and it's shipping this year.