Will Microsoft beat Apple with its 'giant iPhone'?

The dawn of the third-generation PC

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T-Mobile plans to use this object-identification feature in its stores. Customers will be able to place cell phones on the Surface screen and information on the phones will pop up.

What is Surface Computing?

Microsoft Research and the company's hardware division have reportedly been working on Surface for about six years. During that time, they built some 85 prototypes.

The Surface product is cool enough, but what's really important is the broader Surface Computing initiative and platform. Surface is no novelty, fad or vertical-only technology. It's the near future of mainstream PCs, and it's going to be in your home within five years. Ballmer said Microsoft intends for Surface technology to become ubiquitous in homes "from tabletops and counters to the hallway mirror," and I believe him.

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Microsoft Surface - Photo courtesy Microsoft

With this technology, you'll be able to wirelessly sync your phone, Zune or camera with the Surface computer by simply placing the gadget on the screen. Placing a Wi-Fi camera on the screen starts an auto-sync, and the photos inside the camera "spill out" onto the screen.

Look for super-expensive consumer Surface Computing PCs late next year. However, as with most things in technology, prices will decrease, so look for cheap Surface PCs in three to five years.

Why Surface Computing matters

Three things are surprising about Ballmer's announcement. First, Microsoft was able to keep the project a secret. Second, the first product will ship as early as this year. Third, Microsoft adds to the existing research on third-generation user interfaces the concept of recognizing objects.

Pundits, the press and users -- including me -- have been hard on Microsoft lately. And for good reason. Flaccid Vista sales and confusing Vista versions, high prices, lame initiatives like the Ultra Mobile PC and a general lack of innovation have given the company an increasingly bad reputation.

But Surface is a spectacular home run. The secrecy, the implementation, the rollout plan, the early marketing all impress.

Surface appears to give Microsoft an early lead in the next generation computing platform, and, significantly, it thrills partners like Intel and others. Surface craves massive computing power. It guarantees another decade -- or two -- of global demand for ever-newer, bleeding-edge hardware. And even though Microsoft will build the initial hardware itself (using partner components, of course), it's likely that the company will extend the platform to PC makers like Dell and HP.

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