CTIA: Below the ‘Surface’ with AT&T

AT&T today announced it would be the first commercial customer using Microsoft’s ‘Surface’ technology, which lets users touch, grab and manipulate data on screens. The technology isn’t used in AT&T mobile phones, but in a new table-top kiosk to be deployed in AT&T retail stores.

News coverage across the Web was quick. AT&T will deploy the new Surface machines beginning on April 17, with two in New York and one each in San Francisco, San Antonio and Atlanta.

At a CTIA press conference, however, we got a nice look at the Surface in action. The setup includes a display of phones surrounding a table-top screen. A customer picks up a phone, places it on the table top and Surface automatically recognizes the device and displays information about the phone and available services, rate plans and more. It’s a super-slick interface that lets customers if they can figure it out, I guess move data and images around the screen with multi-touch hand movements.


Used the Apple iPhone? Then you have some idea how it works. Seen Tom Cruise manipulating data in the movie Minority Report? Then you have a concept of the larger vision.

When I saw this technology, the lightbulbs really went off, said Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO of AT&T Mobility. When you purchase a device in the store, the customer is met with lots of choices. This makes the process much more efficient and leaves the customer really well-educated before they leave the store.

Even more interesting than the flashy user interface at least for telco-geeks like me was something that the AT&T wireless chief said in passing. According to de la Vega, the long-range vision is for customers to not only have a marketing-oriented experience on the Surface but to start migrating data and settings to and begin provisioning the new device right away.

Picture this: the user sets both their old phone and new device on the top of the Surface. The machine leads them through the process of configuring services for the device, maybe helping to up-sell or cross-sell additional services the customer in the process. Not only are contract terms for the new device and service established on-the-fly, but and here’s where it gets really interesting users can even use the visual, multi-touch interface to view and then move settings, address book listings, photos, music and more from their old device to the new.

Coincidentally, I was scheduled to talk with OSS/service activation vendor Synchronoss Technologies right after the Surface demo. Synchronoss is a close AT&T partner in the service provisioning game it drives the AT&T/Apple iPhone provisioning process as well as enables the online device provisioning process at wireless.att.com.

Synchronoss CMO and executive vice president Omar Tellez hadn’t seen the Surface in action nor heard of the provisioning vision for it, but said it was right in line with how carriers need to think about next-generation service provisioning.

Carriers have seen the provisioning process as just another cost-driven, manual process that they’ve had to deal with, Tellez said in an interview. But what they can find is that it offers a significant opportunity to differentiate themselves.

Just another angle floating just below the surface of the AT&T/Microsoft announcement.

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