MS Surface goes live in AT&T Wireless Stores (a first hand account)

JCG_20080417_023152_0030 The PR folks at Microsoft have to be feeling pretty good. On March 26th Fortune Magazine and others reported that Microsoft’s often hyped multi-touch user interface product, Surface, would not be ready for consumers until 2011. Less than a week later, AT&T Wireless stores and Microsoft announced that Surface would be going live in select AT&T Wireless stores on April 17th (via Engadget, CNET, and BoyGenius).

The confusion comes from the fact that the 2011 date is an estimate for when a touch screen table top computer might be available as a consumer purchase, versus the (apparently) immediate availability for select business partners.

AT&T has a concept store design which blends it’s traditional wireless offerings with AT&T Broadband services in what AT&T calls its "Experience" stores. On Thursday April 17th, the first five experience stores were retrofitted with the MS Surface to help consumers make wireless phone purchases. I visited the San Bruno, CA store on the go-live day.

The basic layout of the Experience Stores is pretty straight forward. The two long perimeter walls are the primary wireless phone merchandising area. All phones are real samples (not dummy phones) tethered to the wall with a coiled cord. The phones are charged overnight, so most of the phones are functional during the day. The wall features a long backlit lightbox feature as an AT&T branding element, and the long walls are broken up by portrait mounted digital signage, and touch screen kiosks approximately every 12 feet.

A false back-wall features 3 flat panel TV’s and a seating area used to demonstrate broadband products (and doubles as a waiting area / spouse parking area). Behind the false wall is the customer service area, which does a nice job of segregating disgruntled customers with billing disputes from potential new customers. The corners of the store have 42" monitors mounted which serve as a wait-time-management feature (showing customers their spot in line) so they can safely browse while waiting for an associate.

The open floor space in the store features "project" tables which demonstrate specific wireless phone applications, such as digital music, video conferencing, games, and wireless data for laptops.

Of course, AT&T is also the exclusive US providers of the Apple IPhone, so the stores features a 6 foot wall display for that product, as well as a 4 foot freestanding display. Both displays are clearly designed by Apple, and are very much in brand for Apple, but a bit incongruent with the rest of the store.

A concierge desk is placed by the front door with a greeter who helps customers get oriented to the store, and/or puts customers in the virtual queue for a sales associate.

The stores are designed by Callison, and won a VM+SD Award for best new retail channel.

The five existing experience stores that were retrofitted with the MS Surface display include:

New York City
381 Madison Ave.
New York, NY 10017

New York City
350 Park Ave.
New York, NY 10022

3429 Lenox Road NE
Atlanta, GA 30326

San Antonio
13127 San Pedro Ave.
San Antonio, TX 78216

San Francisco
1206 El Camino Real
San Bruno, CA 94066

I visited the San Bruno location on the afternoon of April 17th. This store had six MS Surface units which replaced several of the "Project Tables" as well as a couple of round glass display cases.

The exterior of the store had been dressed for the launch. Vinyl graphics were applied to exterior pillars, a sign hung over the door, and window signs were installed. The store had clearly been hosting press all morning. Video lights were still set up around one of the Surface Tables to facilitate filming. There was quite a bit of extra staff in the store, with one dedicated employee doing demos on each of the six surface tables.

AT&T and Microsoft clearly intended to make a media event out of the launch. It is interesting that AT&T would do such a big event around adding a new infrastructure element to the store, rather than about a product for sale in the store. Granted, it’s much easier to make a splash in five concept stores than in 1000+ mainline stores, but on a per-store basis it feels like AT&T is making more of an effort to promote the arrival of Surface, than they did the arrival of the IPhone. Maybe AT&T just conceded that Apple Stores rather than AT&T stores would receive all of the media attention from the product launch? It’s pretty clear that both Microsoft and AT&T are getting a nice news cycle out of this surprise launch. The big question is if Surface will be compelling enough to convert mobile phone browsers into buyers and get deployed to many stores, or if Surface will remain a gee-wiz element in flagship stores only.

Each surface table has 8 mobile phones (4 on each side), and one accessory (such as a blue-tooth headset). The sales associates say that the selected handsets are the most popular models, but the handsets due seem to vary from table to table. The accessories are not related to the software on the surface at all, and are non-functional. They are simply attached to the Surface fixture via a thin steel cable on a retractor.

Each handset is attached to a plastic puck with a strip of very high bond adhesive, and a set of zip ties. The puck rests in a magnetic cradle on the side of the Surface fixture. The puck is attached to the fixture via a coiled cord which provides an electronic alarm if removed. The pucks on the Surface tables are different than those used in the rest of the store. However, the electronic alarm is the same system used throughout the store (Invue, formerly Alpha). The bottom of the puck has a sticker attached to it with a unique pictograph (a series of dots) printed with IR reflective ink. So when the handset is rested on the surface of the table, the sticker is facing straight down, and makes it easy for the MS Surface to recognize what product is resting on it. While Microsoft has talked about Surface using cameras to recognize common objects placed on the table, that isn’t what’s happening in this implementation. Here, an IR sensitive CCD is being used to detect the customers touch and a handful of stickers on the back of the handset pucks. The Surface doesn’t have the ability to recognize a customers phone if it is placed on the table, for example. Also if the stickers are applied to the wrong handset, the Surface will have no way to know.

All four corners of the screen have a simple user interface control. The entire display can rotate 180 degrees, so that it’s always facing right side up, no mater which side of the table the user is standing on. There is no facility for more than one shopper at a time to use the Surface. The UI lets shoppers see rate plans, accessories, and a coverage map. When a handset is placed on the Surface, the UI makes it easy to see the features, accessories, or rate-plans specific to that handset. When two handsets are placed on the Surface, a cool side-by-side comparison is made of the two handsets. The comparison shows features common to both handsets in bold, and grays out features that one handset has and the other does not. The most visually interesting features is the scrollable and zoomable coverage map that can show potential coverage for voice calls and separately for 3G data service.

Of course, because Apple is exclusively responsible for all the displays in the AT&T store that feature IPhones, the IPhone is not included on any of the Surface tables, which is a shame.

Like any brand new product, not everything is perfect on day one. Several of the sales associates said they met Microsoft programmers who where up late into the night, working on a final build of the software to install for the launch. Several glitches are still evident. While you can scale most of the UI elements, they act like pictures rather than live text, so when you scale them, the fonts get jaggy and illegible. When you put two phones on the surface, the software often gets confused about whither it should show the side by side comparison or the product info for a single phone. Often you have to reposition the phones to make it work. There are no personalization features, so you can’t see anything about your account history or add personalization features to your existing phone or account. Despite the face that these kind of one-to-one experiences where heavily emphasized in earlier Surface demos. There are some elements of the UI that seem to be buttons but do not work. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, not all the coiled cords tethering the handsets are the same length. Some seem too short to easily let you put the phone on the Surface, and many of the cables get tangled with each other after just a bit of use.

These flaws aside, the customers in the store getting demos seemed generally wowed by the MS Surface. I didn’t observe any shoppers go from the Surface directly to the cash register, but today was a lot more about introducing a new gadget than it was about signing up new AT&T customers. Time will tell if sales people will continue to drive customers to the tables, if the tables will be intuitive for self-service when they aren’t permanently staffed by a demonstrator, and if the information presented ultimately drives incremental sales.

My own research does consistently show that side by side comparison is a highly desirable feature amongst consumers shopping for a handset. So if the kinks get worked out of surface, this is a feature that could add real value. I’m not sure the other content is rich enough yet, that it will cause shoppers to purchase more network services than they were otherwise intending. Hopefully, the content will continue to mature and improve.

An interesting sub-plot is why/how AT&T became the first partner to get the MS Surface. Back in May of 2007, Microsoft announced Surface and said that the first three partners would be: Harrah’s Entertainment, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, and T-Mobile USA. Not only was there no mention of AT&T, but T-Mobile is a direct competitor of AT&T’s. Then in November of 2007, Microsoft announced that the first deployments would be delayed until Spring 2008. Now of course, it is Spring 2008 and Microsoft has delivered on it’s promise to go live, but not with any of it’s original partners. It I were T-Mobile and I had made any kind of investment in development of this new technology, I’d certainly be upset. Particularly since the T-Mobile brand had been used in countless demos of a mobile phone application, and now AT&T is seemingly getting the same user interface that used to be branded T-Mobile. That raises another interesting question, who owns that look and feel? Microsoft or AT&T? If AT&T doesn’t own it, will they be upset if down the road Verizon or T-Mobile have an identical experience?

Here’s my flickr set from the store.

Here’s a short YouTube video of the experience (do a search on YouTube to find countless other demos).

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