Microsoft still just re-Surfacing Windows

Long-planned escape from beige boxes


Analysis Microsoft's announcement of Surface Computing, basically a PC built into a coffee table, might indeed represent a new paradigm in computing technology, but for Microsoft it's just another attempt at getting its software out from the beige boxes under our desks to somewhere, anywhere, else.

Microsoft long ago came to dominate beige boxes, so market expansion involves either getting more beige boxes out there, or getting Microsoft out of its self-imposed prison.

Leaps in development intended to make computers more friendly (and thus sell to a greater demographic) have gone badly: Microsoft Bob was widely derided as being resource-hungry and patronising, though only with Vista has his shadow finally been removed from Windows (in the form of the dog that accompanies the search dialogue in XP).

But it is Microsoft's attempts to escape from the PC entirely of which Surface Computing forms the most recent part.

Purple Dinosaurs

Back in 1998 we were treated to the story of Kayla Blau and her latest friend:

Seven-year-old Kayla Blau has a new second-best friend. She's smart, but not a show-off. Talkative, but not someone who hogs the conversation. Best of all, she likes a lot of the same activities that Kayla does, and she gives great hugs.

Kayla had fallen for an animatronic D W (children's TV character; Arthur's sister). These soft toys were launched by Microsoft in 1997 under the brand "Actimates", and responded to actions such as squeezing their hands or covering their eyes, and could interact with, and sing along to, TV shows.

The technology was based around an RF-transmitter module which picked up a special signal encoded with the broadcast or VHS recording. Several US TV shows broadcast the signal for a while, though the toys could also work with a PC running appropriate software.

D W came a year after the first "Actimate", Barney the dinosaur. The Teletubbies were slated for Actimate too, though only La-La and Po made it before the project died out.

Michael Newman, then of the Post-Gazette, pointed out just how terrifying Actimates could have become: "A fast-food chain, for instance, could use an interactive toy to promote its latest specials. It could even be programmed to yelp, beep, or otherwise make a ruckus whenever it passed near a restaurant."

Anyone with children can breathe easy that such a vision of the future never came to pass.

Compact audio cassette for Windows

Around the same time as Actimates, Microsoft launched its Auto PC, a computer that slotted into the dashboard of a car and featured everything the driver could want from Windows - early versions even featured a compact audio cassette player.


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