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Microsoft's Surface moves beyond demoware

It's taken a little bit longer than expected, but Microsoft has its first customer ready to put Surface computers into public use.

Perhaps most interestingly, the first one out of the gate is not one of the company's earliest partners. Instead, it is cellular carrier AT&T that is ready to make use of the touch-screen computers.

An example of the Surface computer set-up that AT&T plans to use in its retail stores.

The company will use several counter-height units inside its cellular retail stores. The company is beginning with five stores on April 17: two in New York, one in San Francisco, one in San Antonio, and one in Atlanta.

Each store will have a few of the Surface machines where customers can compare the features of different phones as well as check out service plans and view coverage maps. Currently AT&T uses laptops in the store to offer such features.

"We're in business now," said Pete Thompson, the general manager of Microsoft's surface computing unit.

Microsoft had talked about such a retail use for Surface, but in its demonstrations had featured AT&T rival T-Mobile. Thompson said that T-Mobile remains a partner, but he had no update as to when that carrier will be ready to use Surface in its stores.

And, although Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has said he wants the consumer version of Surface speeded up, Thompson said he also wants to make sure that the company doesn't disappoint its earliest customers, who are all large businesses.

Microsoft has said it is aiming to have the consumer version on shelves by 2011, as much as two years earlier than its initial plan.

"We are trying to do the right thing and accelerate where we can," Thompson said, but added, "I am very much focused on making this initial commercial plan a success without getting distracted."

As for those early buyers, Thompson said that Microsoft does have other unnanounced customers for the Surface, though he declined to name names.

(One name we've heard mentioned is Disney, though Thompson would not comment on that.) He did say that we would start to see activity through partners in some additional areas, such as government, health care, and education.

At last year's partner conference, Microsoft talked about having a software development kit available by April.

Thompson said that the company has started offering a development kit for some software makers and partners, but that for the time being the kit will only be available to select developers.

"We're looking at more of a managed rollout of the SDK at this point," he said, adding that he would not characterize the software kit as being broadly available. "That's where we want to get to. I don't want to say this is a closed or managed system over time."

Although AT&T will be the first place the public can go to regularly see the Surface, Microsoft has permanently installed the machines in one other place: its own campus.

"You can just walk into most lobbies," Thompson said, adding that the company has about 15 to 20 buildings with the machines so far. "We're putting in three to five a week."

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