Microsoft Surface, and user needs beyond the interface


icebergThis past week, Microsoft unveiled Surface, which according to MS is “a fundamental change in the way we interact with digital content“. The last time I recall Microsoft making such claims was in 1995 with the ill-fated Microsoft Bob. But enough on that topic. 🙂

There has already been a lot written on the web about Surface, but most of it is related to the technical aspects of Surface. First let me say that what I’ve seen of Surface on the web is interesting. I’m actually surprised the Microsoft came out with this and not Apple. Aside from the “coolness” of the interface, even the table top computer itself, looked very clean an uncluttered; a real hallmark of Apple.

Watching the various videos online, I couldn’t help but think of the computer interfaces in the movie Minority Report. Now, given that Minority Report is set in the year 2054, there is still time to make those interfaces a reality. One interesting thought comes to mind when looking at the videos of Surface — they are showing a slick user interface and users engaging in a very limited set of interactions: spreading images on a surface, moving them, resizing them etc. But what about all the rest of the stuff, like getting the images into the system in the first place, tagging or organizing them in some meaningful way so finding them when needed is a breeze.

This is not easy stuff to do, but is easily glossed over in quick demos. I’m not bashing Microsoft here, but simply pointing out that to get to the point where the demos shows the interaction happening takes a lot of effort, and tools for easily managing large amounts of digital content (images, video, audio) are FAR from being ubiquitous or easy to use.

About 3 years ago I bought my first digital camera. Yes, I was a laggard in that respect. I had a fine 35mm SLR camera for many years, and then I bought a Nikon Pronea. As a camera, I liked the Pronea a lot, though the small size of the APS film made it difficult to get good enlargements. In the last 3 years I’ve done 2 things WRT my digital images.

  1. I’ve taken a ridiculous amount of photos and movies. I think I have about 20,000 images and video clips
  2. I’ve scanned in all of my film from my analog days. This amounts to about 6000 images

So I have roughly 25,000 images and files that I have to manage. This take up roughly 70GB of disk space. I’m not uploading these to flickr or any other website. It makes no sense to me. What I want here is some easy-to-use, desktop based, image management software. I’ve tried several popular ones, but none make it easy to handle this volume of content. Issues such as mass tagging, finding similar images, easy resizing and retagging of images are all problematic with current applications.

If Microsoft, or any other company for that matter, can put the right pieces of functionality together and deliver a product that addresses this problem well, I’ll buy it. If anyone from a digital media company is reading this, I will speak with your product managers or designers, I will volunteer for a “follow me home” program, ala Intuit had. I will participate in your beta program if you have one. The point here, is that a slick interface is not of much value if the things people need to do to actually use it (use cases, scenarios etc.) are not addressed. It becomes demoware at best.

As a concept, and that’s what Surface is right now, it is interesting. But it won’t be useful until real applications leverage it, and those applications have widespread applicability. Until then, it will be interesting to track and see if Microsoft can do something that truly does fundamentally change how we interact with digital media, or whether Surface ends up like Microsoft’s last interface revolution, Bob.

Saeed

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One response to “Microsoft Surface, and user needs beyond the interface

  1. Pingback: Microsoft Surface, mocked « On Product Management