Yes, Microsoft Could Have Invented the iPhone. Here’s How

Steve Ballmer's company knew what the future of user interfaces would look like.

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Kevin P. Casey / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Microsoft's Surface table, as demonstrated in Seattle, Washington in May 2007

It’s been more than a week since Steve Ballmer announced his intention to retire, and the blogosphere is still busy assessing his tenure as Microsoft CEO. In a response to a post by Asymco’s Horace Dediu, Daring Fireball’s John Gruber says:

Microsoft, in theory, could have produced the iPhone first — not the actual iPhone, of course, but the game-changing device that set the stage for the future where mobile is the primary computing platform for most people, most of the time. That wouldn’t have disrupted Microsoft’s lucrative existing businesses — or least not immediately.

In a previous post, I said that I thought it was unlikely that Microsoft would ever have dominated mobile technology, for the simple reason that the tech company that dominates the old way of doing things rarely dominates the new way of doing things. But Gruber’s reference to the notion of Microsoft inventing the iPhone, or something very much like the iPhone, got me thinking.

At first, it’s a ludicrous notion. So many basic things about Microsoft’s character would seemingly have gotten in the way of creating something like the iPhone that envisioning how it might have seems pointless, like trying to devise a scenario in which Walt Disney directed Pulp Fiction.

And then it occurred to me: Ballmer’s Microsoft actually did invent something that was an awful lot like the iPhone in multiple major respects. It did so before the iPhone was announced, using a bunch of impressive technologies it developed itself. It came closer than I’d remembered to inventing the iPhone.

Oh, O.K., Microsoft’s invention was utterly unlike the iPhone in one critical way: It didn’t fit in your pocket. It was, in fact, huge. It was Microsoft Surface — not today’s tablet computer by that name, but the tabletop computing system Steve Ballmer unveiled at the D conference in May, 2007.

The Surface table had a beautifully polished, fluid multi-touch user interface. While it ran on Windows Vista, it dumped the Windows interface altogether in favor of something more modern, intuitive and engaging. Microsoft’s demo apps included some of the same stuff that people like to do on iPhones, such as browse photos and play games.

Basically, if Microsoft had announced Surface a year or so after Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, it would have been subject to an avalanche of snark about it being a Jumbotron-sized knockoff of Apple’s product. Even though they both owed a considerable debt to concepts created by researchers such as Jeff Han, who did dazzling demos of multitouch interfaces before either the iPhone or Surface was released.

But Microsoft developed Surface concurrently with the iPhone. It showed it to journalists for the first time at a hush-hush media briefing at CES in January, 2007, shortly before Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. (When I saw the iPhone, my immediate reaction was “Hey, neat — a pocket-sized Surface.”)

Surface’s technology involved a Windows PC, a DLP projector and multiple cameras that picked up the gestures you made on its touchscreen. It wasn’t cheap stuff, which is presumably why Microsoft’s initial plans involved using it for commercial applications in venues such as hotels, casinos and stores. As I wrote in Slate after the debut at the D conference, it seemed like a mind-numbingly prosaic fate for such a clever concept.

The product Microsoft announced more than six years ago as Surface still exists, but I don’t think it’s being unfair to say it’s been a major disappointment. (I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen one in the wild, though I did spot one in a restaurant on the Microsoft campus when I attended the Xbox One launch earlier this year.) You know that a company has lost faith in something when it yanks its name to apply it to something newer and sexier, as Microsoft did when it turned the Surface moniker over to its new tablets and redubbed the old Surface as PixelSense.

At a D conference cocktail party back in 2007, Bill Gates told a bunch of us fellow attendees that he thought Surface-style computing would eventually be built into every desk, but it would be a slow process. He may still be proven right — products such as Lenovo’s Horizon are essentially consumerized versions of Surface, at price points which make them plausible for home use. But it may be telling that Lenovo had to devise its own tabletop-computing interface — Windows 8 isn’t designed for such applications.

Anyhow, when you try to envision Microsoft having made a Great Leap Forward in mobile computing before the iPhone came along, the obvious thought process involves assessing what Windows Mobile looked like at the time. It was unimaginative and, with its tiny Start button, backwards-looking. And Microsoft seemed to be reasonably pleased with it.

But Surface proved that the company knew exactly what the future of user interfaces would look like. The only things it got wrong were the scale of the device and the accessibility, pricewise, to consumers. The idea wasn’t destined to eventually show up inside every desk; it was going to be built into a sizable percentage of the world’s phones, starting almost immediately.

So if you want to imagine Microsoft inventing the iPhone, it’s easy. Just summon up a mental image of Microsoft researchers demoing Surface to Steve Ballmer while it was in its earliest stages of development. Then ask yourself: What would have happened if Ballmer had said “That’s fantastic — can we build it into something you can put in your pocket, and sell it at a profit for a few hundred dollars?”