Microsoft has chosen what it sees as the next-generation in PC form factors -- a computer the size and shape of a coffee table with a flat, touchscreen display -- as the third major product it has designed and is branding for the consumer electronics market.
[ Video: Bill Gates explains 'Milan' ]
On Wednesday, the company revealed five-year-old project "Milan," a computer that uses wireless autosync and touchscreen technology to allow users and devices to interact with files and applications using a flat, tabletop screen. The company designed and is branding the computer, as it did with consumer electronics products such as the Xbox game console and the Zune MP3 player.
To accompany Milan, Microsoft has renamed as Surface Computing a team within its Entertainment and Devices Division previously called New Consumer Products. General Manager Pete Thompson leads the group, which has worked quietly in new projects to give computers and other devices more human interfaces.
"The idea is how do we start to blur the lines between the digital world and the physical world," Thompson said. The team's projects have been hush-hush, which is why Microsoft revealed the true name of the group now. Milan is the group's first commercial product.
As demonstrated by Thompson and his team, Milan needs no wires to sync up with devices, and users don't need a mouse to communicate with it. By placing hands on a 30-inch horizontal display, users can move around photos or videos, and even flip them over or display them from different angles. Bluetooth-enabled devices such as mobile phones, wireless cameras, and Microsoft's Zune also can communicate directly with Milan simply by being placed on the screen. Applications will automatically launch and open the correct file library -- such as music or photos -- depending on the device.
The prototype the company showed has a black body with a 30-inch horizontal display and stands 22 inches (55.88 cms) in height, 21 inches (53.34 cms) in depth, and 42 inches (106.68 cms) in length. It runs a version of Windows Vista with the Microsoft Surface custom infrastructure that allows for the touchscreen and autosync capabilities, but the OS is transparent to end-users.
Before introducing Milan to a broad consumer market, Microsoft is targeting market segments, such as leisure/entertainment, hospitality, and retail environments. The product won't be offered in full production until next year, but Milan's first customers -- Harrah's Entertainment, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, and T-Mobile USA -- should deploy the first computers by year's end.
Harrah's is developing custom applications for about 50 Milan units it ordered, and expects to have as many of these in production as possible by year's end, said Tim Stanley, Harrah's CIO. This is customers' initial approach for Milan: Microsoft provides the computer guts, including the OS, some basic applications for photos, music, and the like, and a software development kit (SDK), and customers build their own applications, Stanley said.
Stanley, a former Microsoft employee, saw an early Milan version 18 months ago and was intrigued by it. Although Harrah's is not a Microsoft shop, he thought Milan would provide a "platform to do some new and innovative things for our customers."