Starwood Hotels, one of Microsoft's initial partners for the Surface touch-table, has begun rolling the tables out in some Sheraton Hotels. I happened to be in downtown Seattle this morning and stopped by the Sheraton there to check it out.
I've seen Surface in a controlled demo environment at Microsoft, but this was my first time encountering it "in the wild," and despite the big-ass table criticisms that some have leveled at the product, there's an undeniable thrill in seeing something so weird and new in a public place. No, it's not going to revolutionize computing like the iPhone, but I think it has great potential in public spaces like hotel lobbies and restaurants. At 7 a.m. in the Sheraton lobby, all four tables were occupied, and three of them had people actually using them. (The fourth was serving as a more conventional table, as one traveler rested his bag upon it.)
Sheraton and Microsoft built a jukebox application for the table, and while the song selection is extremely limited--it's got about two dozen albums, all from Sony BMG, each with a single song on it--I saw how Surface could be a great jukebox. You drag albums from a menu onto the main surface, touch them twice to see a list of songs, and drag the songs onto a playlist. In this case, the music played through small speakers on the side of the table, creating a little ambience for folks sitting on the chairs around the table, but I could imagine it working like a regular jukebox hooked into a house sound system in a bar or restaurant.
For this to happen, Microsoft would have to make the tables more broadly available and offer a software development kit to the general development community, who will think of all sorts of clever ways to use it. Imagine what Pandora or Last.fm could do, for example. Right now, the company's limiting rollouts to a few customers to make sure the first apps offer a consistent experience. (For example, making sure that they're all multitouch and that drag-and-drop works in the same way.) But I expect the company to open the program up by the end of this year, at which point the product could really start to flourish.