Microsoft's Surface computing is the kind of Buck Rogers' technology that can dazzle consumers and boost a company's "cool" factor. But in an interview last week, Robbie Bach, Microsoft's president of Entertainment & Devices Division, said he came close on multiple occasions to deep-sixing the project.
"I probably thought about killing it every year it was in development," said Bach, the man who forged a reputation as a hit maker by spearheading Microsoft's Xbox game console.
During the interview, at a Microsoft-sponsored dinner attended by a handful of reporters, Bach said that the excitement generated over the technology has taught him more about an interesting metric: "customer delight." I'll get to that later.
Originally code-named Milan, the Surface computer looks like the 1980s sit-down Ms. Pac Man machine. It uses infrared cameras and a projector to create a touch-screen that can respond to multiple users' hand gestures, as well as interact with other objects. Bach said that Surface was in development for about five years in a "pure incubator" environment with 20 Microsoft employees developing the computer.
Surface has wowed audiences everywhere it's been showcased. Nonetheless, serious challenges still lay ahead, such as reducing the price so consumers can afford it as well as shrinking the clunky 22-inch-high table and 30-inch horizontal display.
"We don't want to be in the furniture business," Bach quipped. Microsoft has said it plans to have the consumer version on shelves by 2011.
Right now, the devices are starting to appear in the retail stores of cellular carrier AT&T. Sheraton hotels, Harrah's casinos, and T-Mobile retail locations are also expected to get the machines. At about $10,000, the price is too high to be considered a consumer product. Finding a way to reduce costs, as well as the computer's size, were why Bach was skeptical about Surface as a profit maker.
"I didn't have a clear line of sight on what the business model was," Bach said. "I was always asking myself whether we could afford to keep it."
Surface did have one important cheerleader: Bill Gates.
Gates is a huge proponent of Surface computing. At a gathering last month of CEOs in Redmond, Wash., Gates said he wants to turn everything we touch into a computer: "It will be absolutely pervasive," he said. "When I say everywhere, I mean the individual's office, the home, the living room."
Bach called Gates a "big supporter" of Surface.
Besides generating applause from reviewers, Surface provided another benefit. Bach said he learned about how to gauge "customer delight" better. He cautioned, however, that Microsoft isn't just out to create gee-whiz products--not unless a sound business plan can be found for them.
"The Buck Rogers stuff won't carry the day on its own," Bach said, adding that just because something is cool doesn't mean it's going to make money (See Segway).