July 10, 2012 at 6:21 PM ET
Microsoft buying Perceptive Pixel last week could easily be dismissed as just another in an endless line of acquisitions by the big movers in tech. But looking a little closer shows that it's part of a trend that may define computing as we know it over the next few years.
One thing that tablet makers have learned over the last few years is that you can't beat the iPad at being the iPad. So Google has focused on being futuristic, Amazon has focused on low cost, and Microsoft has taken two different tacks.
(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal, but that does not give editors privileged information about Microsoft products and services, nor does it impact our opinions of them.)
First, Microsoft has visually differentiated itself with the Metro UI on Windows Phone and Windows 8. An unmistakable visual style is rarely a drawback. It's striking, divisive ... and even functional.
Second, Microsoft is focused on capability. That's why the Surface is built to be a full-on Windows PC (though the RT version of Windows is limited to a degree that is hard to calculate), complete with keyboard and trackpad. And it's why Microsoft bought Perceptive Pixel, a company that does creative things with touchable surfaces, making them powerful and intuitive interfaces.
(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal, but that doesn't give us privileged information about Microsoft products and services, nor does it influence our opinion of them.)
Perceptive Pixel was founded by Jeff Han, one of the people in the world who can rightly be called a pioneer in touch-based interfaces. In a now-famous demonstration done at a TED conference in early 2006, he showed off a multi-touch display with many of the gestures and features that would later be lauded on the iPhone and Microsoft's original Surface table.
Since then the company has continually advanced touchscreen tech and specialized in oversized implementations like CNN's "Magic Wall." And you'd better believe Han and his engineers are interested in things like Kinect and other new technologies; if they were making multi-touch years before it went mainstream, they've got to have some tricks up their sleeves today.
Perceptive Pixel is a young, innovative company that, with luck, is being treated like an invaluable treasure by the massive, much-slower-moving company that just bought it. Some young blood and some fresh (and exclusive) new ideas could be the difference between Microsoft's tablets being decent — and their being essential.
Pen input, fingerprint recognition, 3-D displays, complex gestures. These could all be part of your average tablet in a couple years, but Apple wants to keep things simple and Google is already backing away from full-fledged PCs. Microsoft isn't the only one focusing on next-generation interfaces (see Google Glass), but it clearly has one foot in the past and one in the future. It's possible that hedging of bets might undo them (it might pay off better to go all-in on traditional computing, or all-in on next-gen), but it may also be that they hit the sweet spot: iPad convenience married to desktop versatility.
Of course, it'll take time before Perceptive Pixel's young blood makes it through Redmond's immense circulatory system. And any mishandling (as with Skype, where ads were added to calls) could spoil it. But whether they end up digging their own grave or breaking ground on a New Microsoft, they've got shovel in hand, and that counts for something.
Apple talks about a "post-PC era." Microsoft is trying to bring the PC into that era anyway. Maybe it'll go nicely, maybe it'll go kicking and screaming. Either way, it should make for an interesting couple of years.
Devin Coldewey is acontributing writer for msnbc.com. His personal website iscoldewey.cc.