With the teaser of the next version of Windows earlier today at CES, Microsoft rather surprisingly unveiled version 2.0 of Surface--the multi-touch, table-size computer the company introduced to the public back in early 2007.
Version 2.0 of the Surface is thinner, more accurate to touch, and can be put in places the previous one couldn't. And unlike the first one, this one might actually end up inside the homes of consumers instead of being relegated to retailers, hotel lobbies, and museums.
But there are some big unknowns--several of which Microsoft says should be addressed at tonight's CES keynote, led by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Some things on that list include:
1. The price. The current version of the Surface is a cool $12,500, putting it well out of the range of most consumers. So will Surface 2.0 be cheaper? Presumably so. When the project was first announced, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said the goal was to bring it down to an affordable price within three to five years, until eventually getting the technology to the point where it could be fit inside any flat surface.
At the same time, during today's sneak peek at the new unit, Microsoft said Surface 2.0 was using the largest implementation of Corning's Gorilla Glass yet. The first and the biggest do not always correlate with lower prices.
2. The release date. Microsoft was mum about this during the press conference, so hopefully we'll have more details about it at tonight's keynote. That said, one of the first customers to use it would be The Royal Bank of Canada, which this year, should be bringing Surface 2.0 units into some of its branches to serve as giant, multi-touch account visualization and management tools.
3. New types of software. The consumer pitch for the Surface is still a long shot due in part to the price and the previous form-factor. But at the heart of it, it's all about giving developers a platform to build things on, and with Surface 2.0 there's the promise of more powerful hardware under the hood and a tactile system that can better figure out what your fingers are doing and decipher whatever objects you place on it. That could lead to applications and use cases that go far beyond what has been done thus far. Still, Microsoft is going to need to demonstrate how version 2.0 can move beyond the first version of the product and give people a reason to want one of these things in their house.
Look for answers to some of these things a little later tonight at the company's keynote, which you can tune into live here at 6:30 p.m. PT/9:30 p.m. ET. Microsoft will also be broadcasting a live video stream, which you can catch on this page.
Update, January 6 at 6:37 a.m. PT: Microsoft and Samsung this morning issued a press release with additional details about this next generation of Surface:
The Samsung SUR40 for Microsoft Surface will be available for business customers "later in 2011" in 23 countries. Early adopters will include Dassault Aviation, Fujifilm, Red Bull, Royal Bank of Canada, and Sheraton Hotels & Resorts Worldwide. The Surface systems are intended for commercial use: "The product is designed to meet the challenges of active usage in demanding locations such as retail, hospitality and education."
Pricing for the Samsung SUR40 starts at $7,600.
The underlying PixelSense technology allows an LCD screen to recognize more than 50 simultaneous touch points. PixelSense "gives LCD panels the power to see without the use of cameras," the companies said in the statement. PixelSense uses infrared sensors across the entire screen, and each pixel is a camera, Mike Angiulo, Microsoft's corporate VP of Windows Planning, Hardware & PC Ecosystem, said during last night's keynote.
The 40-inch screen offers full HD 1080p, with a 16:9 aspect ratio and 1920x1080 resolution. The screen is 4 inches thick.
The brains of the machinery is an embedded AMD Athlon II X2 Dual-Core Processor 2.9GHz, paired with AMD's Radeon HD 6700M Series GPU.
These are the 23 countries where the Surface SUR40 will be available later this year: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Italy, Korea, the Netherlands, Norway, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States.