At $500, the iPhone may be pricey, but at least it's within the reach of consumers. In its initial form, Surface won't be—the technology inside just isn't affordable. Microsoft says it will wholesale Surface units for $5,000 and higher to partners such as T-Mobile, Starwood, and Harrah's. These companies will start installing the tabletops this year, which means the first place you encounter Surface will probably be a phone store, a hotel, or a casino.
And therein lies my one gigantic disappointment with this product: The idea may be magical, but most of its initial applications will be anything but. Other than the photo demo, in fact, most of Microsoft's examples of Surface in action are mind-numbingly prosaic. It will help T-Mobile stores sell more ring tones! Look, it's giving Sheraton the ability to market music downloads! Watch it guide high rollers around Caesars Palace!
For Surface to live up to its considerable potential, it needs to come into the home and the workplace. Long-term, I'm hopeful that will happen. Powerful PCs, projectors, and cameras will all get cheaper over time, and economies of scale would kick in if Surface is mass-produced. The day should come when Microsoft is able to manufacture a version of this machine that real people can afford, assuming it's as committed to the concept as it claims to be.
At the D conference, I ran into one surface-computing believer whose opinion counts for quite a lot. "It'll be built into every desk eventually, but it's going to take a long time," said a confident-sounding Bill Gates as he hobnobbed with attendees after his joint onstage interview with Steve Jobs. You could dismiss his prediction of pervasive surface computing as self-interested hype. Then again, this is the man who founded Microsoft based on the far-fetched notion that every desk would one day have a personal computer. If Gates is right about the computer migrating into the desk, the mundane tasks that today's Surface will perform are nothing more than a warm-up act.