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Gates reveals where 'Milan' is headed

Microsoft's chairman says the table PC idea is just the start.

CARLSBAD, Calif.--In Bill Gates' mind, Microsoft's tabletop computer is just the beginning of where the touch-based technology can go.

Dubbed "Milan," the first such computer is manufactured by Microsoft, has a horizontal surface and is targeted at businesses. But Microsoft's chairman said none of those things needs to define the product over time and we're likely to see big changes.

In a brief interview on the sidelines of the D5 conference here on Wednesday night, Gates told CNET News.com about the technology, which Microsoft has been cooking up over the past six years or so, how Microsoft hopes to eventually make the computers far cheaper and how the company will work with others to make the hardware.

Q: How do you see surface computing evolving over time?
Gates: That device is in the $5,000 to $10,000 range. You can imagine high-end business environments, even some high-end homes (paying that). We've got to get it down over the years into more like the $1,000 price range. We've shown various demos where you can project from the top...That's a super high-quality thing that we did there (with the first table).

Eventually, it's in every desk, but that will be a long time. The actual fundamental hardware, the cameras are very, very cheap. The projection piece and how you package that up is the most expensive piece.

I hear you don't have one in your house. Are you getting one?
Gates: No. There's a whole thing about (needing) a complete refresh of my home software. When it first was done quite some time ago, almost six, seven years ago, it was very advanced. Every time I come up from a trip, the photos we took are all up on the displays. Any song, any movie. Today, people can say that's nice and it's not like wow. We have a tiny bit like the surface (computing) thing in that we have these touch-screen displays. But they are nothing like the surface thing. They are vertical touch-screen displays.

There are some things the surface guys need to do where you have a horizontal surface some of the time and you turn it into the vertical surface. You can do it with both where you couple a horizontal surface to a vertical surface. We also want some partners to innovate with one that is horizontal and then you can tilt it up on a hinge, so you can navigate your photos and organize (with the display horizontally) and then go watch movies and that's more a vertical orientation.

So you'll become more involved with partners?
Gates: We need to prove it out this year in the commercial market. The exposure with the partners will be really high and there's more of those that will get announced. Some time over the next, I don't know what time frame, we hope to get people who have hardware ideas. This is one (where) I'd like to see some variety of implementations. It's not like Xbox 360 where there's a lot of reasons why you don't want variety. Here, it's more like the phone or the PC where we think, hmm, we'd like variety. It could take awhile. People, they've seen natural interface stuff so many times where it looked good in the demo and it didn't get (proven out). There's sort of a natural cynicism.