Last month Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer unveiled a product called 'Surface'. Surface needs no mouse or keyboard. Onscreen objects move like real 3D objects and are manipulated directly by touching the screen. Surface is a Windows Vista "coffee table" computer that features multitouch - the ability to respond to more than one input at a time.

Surface represents the coming of the third-generation PC user interface. These are the main characteristics of this interface: multitouch, gestures, physics, 3D and the minimisation of icons - all elements of Surface - and, interestingly, all elements of the Apple iPhone.

Such a user interface lets you "grab," "slide," "pinch," "rotate," "expand" and "move" on-screen virtual objects as if they were real. Like the iPhone.

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The shift from the first generation to the second - from command line to graphical user interface - was 23 years ago, so we are long overdue for the next generation. Will the desktop version of this third-generation UI would come from Apple or Microsoft? The answer, we suggest, is both.

Microsoft beat Apple with the Surface announcement. But will Apple beat Microsoft with shipping an actual product?

What is Surface, anyway?

Microsoft plans to sell Surface devices starting later this year to hotels, stores, restaurants and public entertainment venues as a kind of gimmicky marketing, gaming and informational kiosk.

Surface performs some neat tricks. Five cameras watch from below for what happens on the system's screen. Software processes the live video and recognises objects and hand movements in real time. Unlike, say, Tablet PCs, Surface doesn't have an actual touchscreen. All input is based on what the cameras see.

While iPhone's multitouch is optimised for two touches, such as expanding a photo by moving two fingers away from each other, Surface has been optimised for up to 52 touches. That means five people can use all their fingers and Surface will register all the movements. Multitouch Texas Hold 'Em anyone?

Surface can recognise objects you place on the screen if those objects have a three-quarter-inch square bar code-like identification tags called dominos affixed to them. Any object placed on the screen will immediately be surrounded by an on-screen glow.

T-Mobile plans to use this object-identification feature in its stores. Customers will be able to place mobile phones on the Surface screen and information on the phones will pop up.

What is Surface Computing?

Microsoft Research and the company's hardware division have reportedly been working on Surface for about six years. During that time, they built some 85 prototypes.

The Surface product is cool enough, but what's really important is the broader Surface Computing initiative and platform. Surface is no novelty, fad or vertical-only technology. It's the near future of mainstream PCs, and it's going to be in your home within five years.

Ballmer said Microsoft intends for Surface technology to become ubiquitous in homes "from tabletops and counters to the hallway mirror," and we believe him.