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Beneath the Surface: How Microsoft is missing the boat on tabletop computing

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I spent a good chunk of last Thursday evening playing on a Microsoft Surface table at an AMD event for analysts.I had a ball, and AMD employees shared stories of hours spent gaming on the thing prior to shows and presentations. The system reminded me of how much fun the initial arcade machines were — the ones that predated Atari’s initial successful home gaming system run.

To me, the Surface has the potential to be more than a modern arcade machine, though. It has the potential to be something uniquely Microsoft, but Microsoft seldom seems to seize these opportunities. After all, Microsoft had tablets long before the iPad, and had all the parts for an iPhone long before Apple brought out that product, too. I wonder if the company isn’t once again missing a huge opportunity with Surface — an opportunity that could change the living room and home entertainment as we know it.

Let’s explore that this week.

The allure of social gaming

I come from a time when there weren’t video games and where families got together to play board games as a group. We lost that face-to-face interaction with the current generation of computer and console games.We now play with (or against) people we may never actually meet. Heck, half the time we may not even know for sure if we are playing against men or women, as both are likely to use a gaming avatar from the opposite sex.

From playing cards to geeky games like Dungeons & Dragons, gaming used to be more about social interaction and less about solo experiences.Over the years we have increasingly moved away from gaming as a family, or as a group of people who are enjoying each other’s company while socially engaged.I know we try to do this with games like World of Warcraft, but even when the family is playing, they are generally playing from different locations.

multitouch-table-ms-surface-family

As I played with some of the AMD folks at the event, I was reminded of how much fun it was to chat, drink wine, and play socially.The game was a light strategy game reminiscent of asteroids, but in high definition.You must work collaboratively to save the Earth from alien attack, but you are also competing to get the most kills. At some point you’d think this theme would get old, but for some reason it doesn’t. It is a simple game of piece purchase, placement and upgrades, which allows you to manage your funds. While it took moments to learn, we played for several hours, and I was left wanting a Surface table of my own.

Microsoft’s iPod

I look at Surface, and it truly is a very innovative piece of hardware.The pixels are actually capable of “seeing,” which is how the table notes finger placement. It can even sense physical game pieces, read cards, or take drink orders (it is designed for commercial use).But this same technology applied to in-home entertainment could become the central control system,providing a much more interesting way to see background on whatever show you are watching, or allow you to keep abreast of current events.Think of it as being a digital library of coffee table books.

With a game like Monopoly, the Surface could not only make the game more visually exciting with images of actual homes and skyscrapers as you upgraded them, but also remember the players and positions, so a game could encompass several nights, often months apart.Or how about seeing football plays on the table as they were actually being played on the screen? Or people choosing a play during a live game, and having the table award points for which choice was closest to what the team actually did?

The product, which is made with Gorilla Glass now, is actually very robust (has to be for bar use) and it could also be used to entertain kids while in the same room with the parents.

Letting opportunity slip away

In the end, I see Surface, and particularly this latest version, as having the potential to be something amazing.Over the years, there have been a number of products that had this potential.The Apple Newton could have been the Palm Pilot; the Palm Treo could have been the iPhone; Microsoft Origami could have been the iPad.

Surface isn’t where it needs to be yet, either from a content perspective (it would need a lot more games) or from a price perspective (it would need to be closer to the price of a smartTV). But it is one of those ideas that could be transformative, that could be magical, and that could be amazing. And it doesn’t copy anyone else, so it could also be uniquely from Microsoft and Samsung. Sadly, I doubt they’ll fund this opportunity, but wouldn’t it be amazing if they did?

Guest contributor Rob Enderle is the founder and principal analyst for the Enderle Group, and one of the most frequently quoted tech pundits in the world. Opinion pieces denote the opinions of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Digital Trends.

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