Developers slowly rising to Microsoft's Surface

Microsoft counts 5,000 SDKs shipped for 18-month-old Surface touch screen system

LOS ANGELES -- Microsoft's Surface touch computer may be generating more oohs and ahs than some of the company's other recent technologies, but the product has yet to generate rabid interest among programmers.

A year and half after Microsoft released Surface , just 250 companies are developing applications for the touch system, Microsoft officials revealed during its Professional Developers Conference 2009 (PDC09) held here this week. Some 5,000 copies of its free Software Development Kit (SDK) for Surface have been downloaded, they added.

Compare that with the 100,000 iPhone SDKs that were downloaded in the four days after its launch on March 6, 2008.

Some observers question whether such a comparison is valid -- deployment of the $12,500 to $15,000 Surface tabletop PC is limited mostly to hotels, health clinics, banks and other customer-facing businesses looking for a new spin on the computerized kiosk.

The Surface's April 2008 launch came amid a massive economic downturn that still has businesses shy about investing in new technology, leading to a chicken-and-egg situation where developers are holding off developing Surface apps until the economy improves.

Brad Carpenter, general manager of Microsoft's Surface team, said he remains patient. "For interest to scale out takes time," he said in an interview at PDC this week. "There are more and more apps every day. So we feel like we are making progress."

He pointed out that Microsoft now has 250 Surface partner companies, up from 180 six months ago and 60 a year ago. Similarly, the 5,000 SDK downloads is more than 3 times the 1,500 six months ago, and up sixteenfold from 300 a year ago.

To accelerate development of applications for Surface, Microsoft announced that the Surface SDK is now available without charge to all developers. The SDK was previously available free only to members of the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN).

Microsoft noted that the SDK includes a simulator that lets developers see how their programs would run on a conventional PC. It lets users plug in multiple USB mice to simulate how multi-touch technologies work.

The SDK runs on Vista today, but Microsoft said the next version will be based on Windows 7. With adequate hardware, Windows 7 offers multi-touch capabilities. Carpenter declined to say when the next version will be available.

Microsoft disclosed that it is also integrating the touch and object-recognition controls for Surface into the Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) version 4. That version of the WPF graphics subsystem is due in 2010.

WPF support should help developers more easily create Surface-enabled apps, Carpenter said, as well as make Surface applications run similarly to Windows 7 touch-enabled software.

Carpenter said that the Surface is now available in 18 countries, including 16 in Europe. New customers include Hard Rock Cafe, Barclays Bank and mobile operator Vodafone, which has deployed Surfaces in 62 retail stores to provide customer service.

Surface's stumbling blocks also continue to be its high price and bulkiness.

Microsoft is working on a less-expensive version of Surface which will likely be thinner and wall-mountable, like an LCD television, said Carpenter. The technical difficulty would be packing cameras behind the touchscreen to enable object recognition capabilities, as well as the PC hardware -- an Intel Core 2 Duo processor mounted on a desktop motherboard. But, Carpenter said, "I definitely believe it's do-able."

However, when asked whether future Surface versions would enable in-air gestures like the Xbox 360's Project Natal, Carpenter sounded less optimistic. "We are mostly focused on touch. In-air gestures is not something we are enabling yet," he said.

Carpenter wouldn't talk about the cost of new Surface versions, but did say a new version should be coming soon. "Our goal was to have a consumer version of the Surface in two to four years. We are on track for that," he said.

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