June 10, 2013, 10:40 AM — Microsoft is a profitable, successful company that makes some great products. But it's held back in consumer electronics by its reputation as a stodgy, boring company.
Take the better Windows Phone devices made by Nokia, for example. Pundits agree that these are great phones. But everybody is so enamored of the buzz (and app stores) of iOS and Android phones that Windows Phone-based Nokias are always a second or third choice. That's not a great position to be in when people buy only their first choice.
Now, leaked photos show what could be the greatest mobile phone ever: It's a smartphone that's also a prosumer-quality digital camera. It appears to be a cross between a Lumia 920 and Pureview 808 -- basically a high-end smartphone with a 41-megapixel camera and professional-quality optics.
Even if it's the greatest phone ever, hardly anyone will buy it because Microsoft's brand isn't associated with coolness.
Microsoft Surface RT isn't the best tablet, in the minds of most consumers. The iPad is. But it might be the second best tablet. Still, RT sales don't reflect its quality. They suffer from being associated with boring old Microsoft.
Let's face it. In the consumer electronics space, Microsoft is floundering. But their lack of success isn't the result of their products, and it's definitely not the result of their technology.
Here's how the company could do it.
The Microsoft moonshot
Consumers don't know it yet, but every major company in the industry knows that the desktop, TV and boardroom computer of the future is a big-screen touch-, voice- and in-air gesture-based computer.
What if Microsoft shipped that future years ahead of everyone else?
One year ago, there were two killer huge-screen multitouch computer products on the market.
One of them was made by Samsung using Microsoft's big-table operating system, called PixelSense. (PixelSense used to be called Surface before the mobile group stole that name and applied it to the mobile tablet.)
The other company was called Perceptive Pixel, which made the touch-screen computers you see on CNN during the elections.
Last summer, Microsoft bought Perceptive Pixel. Now Microsoft owns the whole category, making not only the platform, but the hardware and most of the apps, too.
Here's the moonshot: Microsoft should ship an integrated vision for consumer electronics centered around a multi-touch table.
The table could look and work a lot like a new product unveiled this week by Ideum called the Platform 46 Multitouch Coffee Table.
The Platform 46 Multitouch Coffee Table is nice, but it's not ready for consumers.
The table uses a brand-new, high-performance 3M screen, also unveiled this week, that can handle not just 10 simultaneous fingers on the screen, but 60!
The screen itself is just a 1080p display, lower than the resolution of the better smartphones, which keeps performance high and costs down. It runs Windows 8 and works like a touch tablet.
Beyond the form factor, 3M touch screen and special graphics card, the Platform 46 is a pretty standard PC. It's powered by an Intel i7 3.1GHz processor with 8GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive and a dedicated GPU.
Microsoft's consumer table could be at least as awesome as the Platform 46, but perform a special feat of magic: Microsoft could make all its hardware, and the mobile hardware made by its Windows and Windows Phone partners, to automatically and instantly interact with the table.
For example, placing a Windows phone on the table could automatically re-arrange the content displayed so that nothing is under the phone. And the contents of that phone -- pictures, documents and so on -- could "spill out" onto the table, where the user could interact with them before pouring the contents back into the phone with a simple gesture across the table surface.
The same magic could be performed by Windows RT tablets.
In other words, the table would be a giant-screen station for Microsoft-powered mobile devices.
It's worth noting that Microsoft PixelSense tablets have been offering this phone-interactive feature for five years.
And -- why not? -- build wireless charging into the table so those gadgets could be charged without being plugged in.
A Microsoft consumer table would let people pour their bills out onto the table and see 12 of them at once, edit their photos on a giant screen, have multiple TV stations going on the surface of the table, let families play mult-user games like air hockey, Monopoly and others and read full-size newspapers in the morning with breakfast.
Who wouldn't want this?
Microsoft could build killer voice command and dictation into the table and new Kinect in-the-air gestures for controlling everything that happens on the table -- and on the phones and tablets sitting on the table.
But wait, you might say, that would be too expensive. The market isn't ready. Well, that's all true. And it's probably why Microsoft isn't seriously planning such a launch.
But Microsoft needs to stop thinking like a commodity software company and start thinking like a luxury car brand if it wants to boost its reputation in the consumer electronics world.
Microsoft could probably ship such a table for $5,000 or $6,000 each -- well beyond the reach of the average consumer. But even at a price many times higher than a low-cost PC, the existence of the product would enhance the Microsoft brand.
Just as companies like Toyota and Mercedes make incredibly expensive, awesome cars that create a halo effect around their more affordable operations, Microsoft could become associated with an awesome vision of the future that everyone would want to be a part of.
Microsoft's integrated vision of the future would make Microsoft an aspirational brand in the consumer electronics space. Look how much mileage Apple gets out of being an aspirational brand. How many teenagers buy an iPod touch because when they go wide-eyed into the Apple Store and gape at those iMacs and Retina iPads and MacBooks they know that's the direction they want to go in, and they know Apple is the company they want to be associated with?
Apple's "image" creates loyal customers before those customers even buy their first gadget.
A minority of deep-pocket consumers would buy Microsoft's magic table. Pundits would obsess over them. Jimmy Fallon would gush about it on TV. Everybody would be talking about Microsoft's table instead of Google's Glasses or Apple's non-existent wristwatch.
Moore's Law would have its way with the table. The price to produce would probably drop by $500 a year, even as Microsoft continued to improve the product.
The problem with Microsoft in the consumer space is not that the company lacks the technology. Microsoft has some of the best technology in the industry. What it lacks is the will to ship that technology to consumers and provide people with a compelling, breathtaking and wonderful vision of the future.
Microsoft: Just ship what you've got. Make the desktop computer an actual desktop before Apple and Google do and you'll own the future.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at http://Google.me/+MikeElgan. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.
Read more about personal technology in Computerworld's Personal Technology Topic Center.