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Very random thoughts on a variety of interactive media topics. Broadly looking at experience design, brand, digital consumer strategies, innovation and a fair dollop of user-facing technology. I'm Experience Director at EMC Consulting and you can also find me masquerading as @poleydee on Twitter.

The potential Surface ecosystems

In my last post on Microsoft Surface, I mentioned that some of the business and brand people we spoke to about Surface didn’t immediately see the opportunity. Or rather, they didn’t see a cost-justifiable opportunity when set within the current environment of the Surface ecosystem.

The latter is particularly true in the media business. A Brand Director for a media company asked me at the Forrester Consumer Marketing Forum the other week, what scenarios had been envisaged for the media industry. I had to confess that I hadn’t given it much thought.

Now, however, I’ve spent a lot more time with people in that industry and showing them Surface, and some thoughts have gelled.

The clues came from people asking questions like “So, will these be in railway stations?” or “When will people have these in their homes?”.

In the early phases of Microsoft Surface we will largely see a series of sovereign, bespoke applications. Surface units deployed with a single all-consuming application specific to a business or environment. This makes sense in retail where for example we are already seeing applications commissioned and developed by retailers like AT&T, that have one specific purpose. Similar stories are true in other industries.

Microsoft Surface however, has a ‘shell’. A browse interface where multiple applications can be browsed and then run. The bespoke applications mentioned above generally don’t use this shell. They don’t need to. They simply run the application built for them.

So what use is the shell? Well, in banking, it might be used to simply select from a number of specific advice or forecasting applications. In hospitality though it starts to get a bit more interesting, and this is where the media and entertainment connection comes in.

In hotels, airport lounges and other areas where people generally dwell for longer periods of time, there is a different potential use scenario. That is for Surface devices to become both a generic and ubiquitous device, as well as to become media networks.

This is where the media scenarios for Microsoft Surface started to gel.

There are a bunch of companies and applications where in any of the places Surface is deployed, their specific application might only be 10% of the usage of any single device. This scenario doesn’t cost-justify the design and development of such an application. But multiply up the number of places this application is deployed, and it suddenly starts to become feasible.

For example, an application that allowed customers of a specific travel loyalty programme to get and use specific premium services. Put this in a hotel lobby in Milton Keynes, and the odds of someone even walking in the door who was a member of this programme might only be 1 in a 100. The cost of the software development, the cost of the device and the support and maintenance for it would simply not be justifiable against  these odds.

However, deploy that application to a network of several thousand devices, where the cost overhead was shared with a dozen other applications, and allow that application to be run when someone put their loyalty card on the Surface, and the cost-justification is a lot better.

When you have a thousand people flowing through a public space, there are likely to be hundreds of different motivations and goals and not many in common. Even in a specific location like a hotel lobby, there are very, very few needs that are common to all and therefore justify a single bespoke application.

However, when you think of Microsoft Surface as a network, and you have the ability to choose from a variety of applications from trusted third parties, you begin to see how these devices might be universally useful.

Simplistically, if there were an ‘app store’ that allowed us to browse games, content and entertainment from global media companies, or from great third party application developers like Vector Form, whose music making applications like ‘Surface DJ’, for example, are simply a delight, then I can see our customers wanting us to make these available to their consumers in a variety of locations.

You can then envision a world where you would approach a generic Microsoft Surface device, with an identifier like a loyalty card, and expect to be able to pull up a specific application. Or with a specific newspaper, that you would place on the Surface, and it would then create a multimedia, collaborative, enhanced experience based on the core newspaper content.

There are plenty of apps that you could see that when sat down with time to kill you would gladly immerse yourself in. From planning a day out, sorting pictures and posting them to your favourite photo sharing site, social media apps, making music, playing games, entertainment, research, planning a day or night out… they’re endless.

But today, would a newspaper or a TV company set out to create such a series of applications? Only if they were prepared to make some game-changing decisions. For example, if they wanted to begin to create such a media network, or they are developing for a specific marketing campaign where they would deploy units as part of that campaign. For example, as part of a sponsorship at a Trade Show.

The point of all this?

I see a few scenarios that are likely to emerge in the coming months or years:

  • A ‘common use’ approach to Surface – where a network of devices is deployed in public areas, and a mechanism whereby applications or content from a number of third parties can be accessed. There is already a standard to which applications can be certified, and so common use scenarios like those that exist in the airline industry for kiosks and terminal equipment are quite viable.
  • Something like this would necessitate a few things such as:
    • An open royalty exchange mechanism, or an affiliate tracking model, wherein application developers can charge per use, or vendors can track traffic and sales and allocate value back to the owner of the device from where this originated.
    • Deployment mechanisms and trusted status mechanisms for content and device owners and application developers.
    • Media sales and serving – both the tools to sell media space and the tools to serve advertising or other paid-for media, as well as new formats that fit much better with the Surface interaction paradigm.
  • Generic content wrapper & utility applications – for example, a newspaper reader, a movie trailer viewer, a classifieds/map application (actually ‘Concierge’ is this already) as well as the applications required to help people respond to calls to action e.g. send to my phone, charge my credit card, etc. These apps can be developed by a small number of vendors and open generic formats created that allow content to be parsed in from anywhere in any language.
  • Hardware ecosystems – enclosures, peripherals, custom surrounds, etc. To make for example Virtual DJ work in a Cafe, you’ll need headsets – or somewhere to plug your own headphones into. These would need to be on the surface of the unit rather than down to the side. For taking card payments you’ll need to integrate some already certified card readers, or ‘pay and wave’ devices, so there will certainly be a marketplace for people making things that enable all these.

If any or all of these things were in place, the senior people in media who we spoke to could certainly see how they would play in the Surface space. Given an initial lack of clarity, given this environment, they all immediately got how they would play in the Surface space…

So today it makes sense to focus on Retail, Banking and Hospitality, but whilst we’re doing that, has anyone got any venture capital spare, or a slot on Dragon’s Den coming up?

And in case you were wondering, Conchango is in the experience design and development business. So we’re working with brands to develop applications for Miccrosoft Surface in the UK, US and Europe.

As a footnote – if you want to see Surface in action in London, or elsewhere in the UK, talk to us.

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About Paul.Dawson

I started working in 'new media' when it was new... around 1996, doing websites for people like DHL and Cellnet (remember them?) as well as CD-Roms for people like Dorling Kindersley. I joined Conchango in 1999 because I was fed up with the conflicts and overlaps between the companies that we tended to partner with to deliver these things. Usually it was a tech company and a marketing agency. Neither had the user's needs in mind, and both were trying hard to take business away from each other. So at Conchango I saw the opportunity to create an integrated team, who as a result of all being on the same side, and following good user centred design process, delivered better stuff for both our clients and their customers. Bizarrely, now that we have teams who truly understand all these aspects of projects, we now partner very well with both tech and creative companies! So we built an interactive media team who do design, branding and user experience, and since 2006 have consistently been rated best in Europe at this by Forrester Research. Which was nice! Since then I've worked on digital strategy and innovation for companies like Virgin Atlantic, Barclays, Tesco and other great clients as part of EMC Consulting. Now I spend a lot of time evangelising to customers and at conferences, about what EMC Consulting do in the field of Customer and Brand Experience, as well as still working for real clients on real projects. The final thing I do is look out for what new user-facing technologies will be relevant to us, our customers and consumesrs. I help shape how we adopt them, and how we apply them, and how we build the skills we need to be the best at them.

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