Microsoft pitches Surface to new markets

Microsoft is targeting government and educational customers with its Surface tabletop computer.

Microsoft could be hoping for an "Oprah effect" for its Surface tabletop computer.

Microsoft gave a demo of health-care applications designed for the Surface tabletop computer to media mogul Oprah Winfrey's production company for consideration for use in a new television show with Dr. Mehmet Oz. The doctor has been featured often on Winfrey's talk show and is famous for a series of best-selling health-care and weight-loss books he co-authored with Dr. Michael Roizen.

Marketers dream of having products endorsed by Winfrey because it can result in a dramatic increase in sales, the so-called "Oprah effect." The Microsoft demonstration was specifically for Winfrey's spinoff program with Dr. Oz, so it is unclear whether she will display the Surface on her show. The price tag for a Surface is US$12,000.

Microsoft didn't go after Winfrey solely as a way to raise mass-market awareness for the Surface. After initially targeting retail and hospitality segments, Microsoft has recently begun pitching the Surface to government, educational and health-care institutions, said Ken Mallit, solutions architect for the public sector at Microsoft.

At the CIO Summit, an annual get together in Redmond, Washington, Microsoft on Wednesday showed off some Surface applications that could appeal to such customers. Microsoft typically doesn't write the programs internally, instead partnering with third-party software developers.

One application lets users manipulate images of the body, turning and examining an image of the heart, for example.

A doctor might use such an application to explain to patients conditions they have and to depict how their physiology might differ from the standard. The doctor can erase parts of the heart or add arteries, for example, to show patients what their heart looks like compared to a normal one.

After seeing the health-care application at the CIO Summit, Daniel Duffy, CTO for Seattle University, imagined using it and the Surface as a teaching tool.

Mallit also demonstrated applications aimed at the education market. Some are learning tools meant to be fun. For example, a tick-tack-toe game requires a young student to answer a math or history question correctly before placing a square or circle on the board.

Other applications could be used to keep track of attendance. A student could be required to swipe his or her badge on the Surface when walking into a classroom and an application would record the student's presence. The teacher could then easily save attendance data. A teacher could also use the Surface in the front of the class room to show graphics in teaching material and then send that data to students' own computers.

Libraries are also logical Surface users, Mallit said. The Darien Public Library in Connecticut is using one and Microsoft has done a pilot application with the King County library system in Washington, although no Surface units are in place there.

In addition to education and health care, Microsoft sees an applications in government institutions. For the past eight months Microsoft has been developing an operations command-and-control application for the Air Force, although the military branch hasn't yet committed to buying units, Mallit said.

Despite shrinking IT budgets, government agencies are considering the Surface because while users may have to handle the development of front-end applications, they can draw on existing back-end systems like SharePoint and SQL databases, Mallit said.

The developer edition of the Surface, which includes a software developers kit, costs $15,000.

Matthew McLean, deputy chief information officer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, thinks it would be great to have a Surface in conference rooms. Workers could swipe their badges on the screen to authenticate them as users. Then they could pull up documents and share them with others at the meeting.

Since its launch last year, the Surface now has enough available applications to demonstrate its usefulness, he said. "Surface is a lot more quantifiable this year," he said.

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