Microsoft coffee-table PCs 'surface' at AT&T stores

AT&T will soon be the first company to use Microsoft's touch-enabled, tabletop Surface computers as customer-service kiosks in stores.

The carrier said Wednesday that beginning April 17, Microsoft Surface computers will be set up in 12 retail locations in New York, Atlanta, San Francisco and San Antonio, Texas.

AT&T plans to use Microsoft Surface computers to provide information to customers about mobile devices and other products being sold in its retail outlets. Customers can find out the particulars of a device simply by placing it on the Surface screen; the information will automatically appear on the screen by reading sensors in the devices. Customers also can compare devices side-by-side in this way.

Customers can also view interactive coverage maps and use touch and hand movements to move and work with the maps to determine the coverage areas for their wireless service. Eventually, AT&T plans to add the ability to purchase accessories for devices, such as ringtones, graphics, video content and the like, using drag-and-drop and touchscreen capabilities on the Surface kiosks.

Depending on the success of the deployments in the first four cities, AT&T will decide where it will install them in other cities and markets. If the price is right, AT&T can envision Surface computers in all its stores, said Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO of AT&T Mobility, during a press conference at the CTIA show in Las Vegas.

He imagined a future application that would help customers when they come into a store to buy a new phone. A customer would place the old phone on Surface, which would pull out the content from the phone, including photos and videos, and display it on the table. The customer would then choose which content to keep and drag it over to the new phone.

Microsoft is still working with the four early-adopter companies with which it launched Surface, as well as T-Mobile, said Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft's entertainment and devices division. Microsoft expects other companies to start using Surface in the next year, he said.

The deployments will happen in a phased fashion, like AT&T's, since each requires custom application development, Bach said. "You can test all you want but when you're live in the store with hundreds of customers, you want to make sure things are tuned exactly right," he said.

Microsoft helped AT&T to develop the applications it uses. Avenue A Razorfish, the advertising company Microsoft bought along with aQuantive, developed the user interface for AT&T's Surface computers, he said.

Microsoft first unveiled the Surface computers as a project code-named Milano a little less than a year ago. A Surface machine is about the size and shape of a coffee table with a flat, touchscreen display. Users interact with the machines merely by touching the screens and making various hand motions to move icons, photos or other files around, or to launch applications.

More information about AT&T's launch is available on the company's Web site.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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