Microsoft hails the coffee table computer

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Microsoft will on Wednesday introduce a coffee table-shaped device that it says will pioneer a multibillion-dollar category of computing.

The “surface computer” features a 30-inch horizontal monitor embedded in the table, where users can move screen objects around with their fingers. Objects placed on it will be automatically identified.

Unusually for Microsoft, the software company will make the computer’s hardware through contract manufacturers, and sell it to commercial customers before tackling the consumer market.

The coffee table computer is the result of five years’ research and is being launched by Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices division, home of the Xbox console and Zune portable media player.

In a demonstration for the Financial Times, Microsoft showed how several people around the table could take advantage of the computer’s multi-touch software to grab
and expand digital information, such as photos and music files, or play games together.

Commercial applications in­clude menu-ordering on a restaurant version of the table and maps and reward card points delivered to tables in hotel lobbies and casinos.

The surface computer’s first customers are hotels and telecommunications group T-Mobile. In T-Mobile stores, any phone can be placed on the computer’s surface and be instantly recognised.

Customers would be presented with a display of its features, various calling plans and the option to install ringtones or wallpapers with a few dabs of their fingers.

While the multi-touch, object-recognition software is innovative, the hardware relies on existing technology including a camera, scanner, rear-projection television and computer.

At $5,000 to $10,000, it is currently too expensive for the consumer market.

Steve Ballmer, Microsoft chief executive, is launching the surface computer at the Wall Street Journal’s “D: All Things Digital” conference, currently being held in California.

Microsoft is likely to license the software eventually so that original equipment manufacturers such as Dell and HP can make their own versions.

“This is a big breakthrough for Microsoft in terms of evolving the notion of what a personal computer is, as well as the type of experiences you can get from one,” said Michael Gartenberg, Jupiter Research analyst.

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