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Bumps on the road to Microsoft's Surface

Software maker doesn't expect early partners to have their units up and running until spring. It had hoped they would be ready before year's end. Photos: Surface demo

Although Microsoft is still getting plenty of "oohs" and "aahs" when it demos its Surface computer, the company is finding the task of bringing the tabletop computer to market a little rougher than it anticipated.

The software maker's initial plan was to get partners with up and running as early as this month. Now it estimates it will take until spring before the devices start showing up in locations like Sheraton hotels, Harrah's casinos, and T-Mobile retail locations.

Part of the holdup has been in developing the custom software each of those partners needs, as well as making sure the hardware is suited to their locations.

"What we have found out is this is not a one-size-fits-all solution," said Mark Bolger, a senior director in Microsoft's surface computing unit. Microsoft had already spent four years developing the product before going public this May.

Giant tabletop PC blends reality with virtual reality.

The product, originally code-named Milan, looks a bit like a 1980s sit-down Ms. Pac Man machine, but 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.

Even as the short-term work proves a bit thorny, the company is growing more enthusiastic about the eventual market for its devices, Bolger said. Since the Surface's May unveiling, Microsoft has gotten more than 2,000 inquiries from companies in 50 countries and 25 different industries.

While it remains focused on its early launch partners, Microsoft hopes to broaden the product in short order to other companies and other industries.

It has yet to launch a public developer's kit, but it has set up a to get outside ideas on what markets might be most ripe. As a result of that feedback, it's speeding up plans to move into the government, education, and enterprise arenas, in addition to the current areas of focus--hospitality and retail, Bolger said.

The company has taken its Surface prototypes on the road a lot in the past six months, showing them to thousands of people in places like New York, Toronto, Boston, Paris, and Zurich. Microsoft plans to show off three of the units publicly on Saturday at the Sheraton in Boston.

"The response continues to be one of overwhelming excitement," Bolger said. "It's confirmation that this is a new category."

In a with CNET, Bill Gates spoke about the potential of surface computing to go far beyond the tabletop, once the costs come down. The initial units are expected to cost in the range of $5,000 to $10,000, but the company still hopes they will fall to a price affordable to consumers within three to five years. Longer term, Gates sees computers invading all manner of flat spaces.

"It can be in every desk," Gates said. "It can be in every table, it can be in every whiteboard, every mirror. Give us a 5- to 10-year time frame and we will wonder why our tables used to just sit there and not do anything for us."