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Microsoft, Palm take on Apple at WSJ event

Apple wasn't the only firm taking advantage of the D: All Things Digital event to reveal new technology, but new hardware entries from Microsoft and Palm still drew a line back to Cupertino.

Microsoft Surface

Perhaps the most surprising entry was Microsoft's Surface, a spin on Windows Vista that uses a technology that will be very familiar to those who have followed the iPhone's short history.

The table-shaped prototype that demonstrates the technology uses multi-touch —the same technology that underpins the iPhone's user interface —to allow more natural interaction with items onscreen. Users can use multiple fingers to stretch photos, push and pull information around the screen, and draw gestures.

Its large surface also recalls the original demonstrations of multiple-input technology by New York University researcher and later Perceptive Pixel founder Jeff Han, who demonstrated a basic, whiteboard version of multi-touch interfaces in February 2006 at the Technology Entertainment Design (TED) conference in Monterey, California.

What distances Surface from both Han's demonstration and the iPhone, however, is the concept of smart objects. ID tags placed underneath each object can automatically trigger events or information relating to the item at hand: for example, displaying the vintage of a glass of wine or offering a network connection to a Zune player.

As advanced as the technology may be, Microsoft warns that the technology may take years to filter down to the consumer level. A standard Surface table will cost $10,000 and will see its first real-world uses in casinos, restaurants, and at store kiosks, placing it well out of reach of those also considering Apple's upcoming $499 cellphone.

Palm Foleo

Those same iPhone customers, however, may eventually turn to Palm's new option.

Called the Foleo, the device is the first "mobile companion," according to its creator. It amounts to a subnotebook assistant for smartphones that works around the oftentimes cramped keyboards and small displays of most pocket-sized cellular devices.

While not a substitute for either the phone or a true notebook computer and therefore no real challenger to either platform, the Foleo's 10-inch screen and Wi-Fi let it work on and synchronize e-mail as well as Office documents with its parent phone. It can essentially take over from a smartphone for those workers who literally depend on their phones for their livelihood, the company says.

And though the $499 device is only slated to work with the Treo range upon its summer release, Palm notes that owners of other phones should keep an eye on the Foleo's progress. The mini-computer's Linux roots will let a "modest software effort" bring support to virtually any other mobile OS —including Apple's. The iPhone creator is mentioned by name in the same breath as other outside cellphone makers in a list of candidates, indicating a willingness (if not necessarily intent) from Palm to bring Foleo support to Apple's mobile version of Mac OS X.