You say you want a revolution

Wednesday. It once belonged to the god Odin (aka Woden or Wotan), the chief of the Norse pantheon, who was so consumed with knowledge that he gave up one of his eyes to attain the wisdom of the ages . I think Odin would appreciate that his day that has become synonymous with gadgets and gizmos here at Macworld and not, say, Thursday. I don’t care if that guy had a hammer. So did Bob Vila. What’s your point?

Microsoft and Palm apparently agree with my assessment, as both chose today to launch splashy new products. Will Surface and Foleo truly usher in revolutions in technology, or are they merely passing fancies? We’ll take a brief look at each, and throw in a third potential revolution for you digital hippies out there, all for free.

Touchy, touchy: Microsoft breaks the Surface

Trust the folks in Redmond to describe their new coffee table in practically messianic terms. Though perhaps Surface is a bit more than just a gussied-up place to put your drinks: the table features a 30” screen that uses a multi-touch interface. Multi-touch is, of course, one of the biggest buzzwords in tech at the moment, as several companies race to corner the market on this computer interface evolution. At last year’s SIGGRAPH, I noted that both NYU’s Jeff Han and Mitsubishi were demoing multi-touch interfaces. And, of course, Apple’s own iPhone hopes to bring multi-touch into the mainstream in just a few short weeks. All in all, the future is finally starting to look like the future. Now, how about my flying car?

So what makes Microsoft’s entry stand out from the crowd? I’ll give you a hint: it’s one of Bill Gates’s favorite words. Devices . Microsoft has approached Surface in— surprise —a very Microsoftian fashion. If you watch the demo videos on their site you’ll see a number of examples where people put a device down on Surface and it interfaces with the table. Digital pictures seem to spill out of a camera; phones display their specs and allow you to compare them; music tracks from your Zune appear as CD cases (finally! a way to boost Zune sales!). Of course, the devices you use will need to be compatible with Surface, which speaks both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

From a usability perspective, there are plenty of questions to be answered. The videos demonstrate what happens if you connect your camera with a few pictures: what if you have hundreds of pictures? Will there be a more manageable way to deal with them? And as far as the promise that you’ll be able to trade songs back and forth, I wonder if Surface isn’t an unwelcome middleman: why can’t you just trade music between two Zunes? And if it doesn’t work with the best selling music player of all time, does it even matter? Not to mention, how will this future of freedom jibe with Microsoft’s love of all things DRM?

Questions, questions, questions. And not ones that are likely to be answered in the near future. Much of what Microsoft is showing off are potential applications. The initial units will cost somewhere in the range of $10,000, so it’s little surprise that Microsoft is first rolling out Surface with an assortment of retail partners: hotels like Sheraton and Harrah’s and stores like T-Mobile. Microsoft expects the price to drop over the next few years, enough so that Surface will eventually appear in the homes of individuals, but it expected a similar wave for the Tablet PC, a device that has never really caught on outside of its niche.

The coolest thing about Surface? There’s nary a hint of Windows in its UI: no start menu, in fact few menus at all. No Aero Glass, no minimize widgets, nothing. I presume it is running on a foundation of Windows, though—a theory I fully expect to be proved once the first Surface erupts into a giant 30” Blue Screen of Death. As some French guy I’m too lazy to Google once famously said, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

Shakespeare’s First Folio it ain’t

I confess that I’m not really down with the smartphone revolution. My cell phone is primarily used for boring old phone calls. On rare occasions I send text messages, but it’s a pain to fumble through the complicated interface, and don’t get me started on what passes for web surfing. Frankly, it’s not really designed or suited for those tasks; that’s a problem with mobile computing in general. Our present day display and input technologies simply don’t practically scale to those sizes.

Palm’s new device, the Foleo, aims to fix that. There are times, Palm founder Jeff Hawkins points out, when you need a full-size screen and a full-size keyboard, and that’s essentially what the Foleo is. The device has a 10” screen, keyboard (with, apparently, a *blech* TrackStick ), talks to your smartphone via Bluetooth, and can power on instantly, more like a PDA than a laptop.

But hold on just a second . Let’s back up a bit: the key to making your smartphone the mobile platform of the future is…a totally separate device? That’s…erm, interesting . My first reaction upon seeing the Foleo was wondering why they just didn’t make it a standalone computing device—it’s around the size of some of the tiny laptops that have become popular in Asia, and there’s been a growing demand in the US market for light, small subnotebooks. I presume the decision was primarily for two reasons: 1) adding more innate functionality would have required a larger, bulkier device and 2) nobody’s going to throw out their laptop and smartphone to have one device that splits the difference. They might, however, opt to get rid of a full-blown laptop in favor of a small “mobile companion,” especially for quick, short business trips.

Though the demos show it used in conjunction with a Treo, Hawkins also said that they plan to try and make Foleo work with other devices as well. That’ll be interesting: I wonder if Foleo is actually running its own OS or if it’s somehow just acting as a display and input device for the smartphone (using something like VNC, for example). If you used it with a Windows Mobile device, for example, would it use Windows Mobile’s interface, or would it still look like this Palm-style UI? And what about the iPhone? Hawkins supposedly says they want it, but how will the multi-touch interface translate?

The Foleo’s going to run $599 when it’s available later in the year, though a special introductory offer will drop that pricetag by $100. Added to a smartphone, you’re probably looking at a $1,000+ investment—around the price of a low-end laptop. Despite being “a completely new category” of mobile devices, I have to wonder how many people will opt for a third device that is both bulkier than their smartphone and less powerful than their notebook computer. My guess: not many.

The pen is mightier than the keyboard

One thing I’ve relished about the digital revolution is that it means that I don’t need to show people my absolutely atrocious handwriting. It’s a secret I’ve taken pains to conceal: my chicken scratches look like they’re written by a drunk, blindfolded five year old (best party game ever ).

So I greet the announcement of a “paper-based computing platform” with suspicion and dread. LiveScribe uses a two-part process: a smartpen and specialized “dot paper” to record everything you scribble down, say, during your class lecture. That information can later be transferred to your computer via LiveScribe’s desktop software (which, unfortunately, looks as though it may be Windows-only at this point). In addition, the smartpen can record audio snippets linked to certain parts of the text you write. The company’s working on bringing a host of other functionality to life, such as recognizing math formulas and automatically solving equations when you write them out, letting you animate “movies” that you draw, and more.

It sounds pretty ambitious, and with a $200 pricetag for the pen and dot paper priced “comparable to standard paper products,” it seems cheaper than Microsoft and Palm’s revolutions, if less flashy. But simply put, I don’t think it’s for me: I can see this being useful for extensive notetakers in school, but I rarely use pen and paper any more except for jotting down quick notes and To Do lists, and that’s because I prefer to have them in physical form as opposed to on my computer. Not to mention, as I suggested above, my handwriting is frequently illegible to all including myself. And, as I’ve yet to see a flesh-and-blood picture of the device, I suspect it may only be usable by cartoon characters .

[via Gizmodo ]

Pen, table, or mobile companion: will one of these rule supreme in your personal technology future? Speak forthwith in the comments below. We’ll see you next week (Odin’s Day, of course) on Gadgetbox.

  
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