Last night, at the Microsoft store in San Francisco's Westfield Shopping Center, Microsoft's Panos Panay held a meet and greet to show off the company's upcoming Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 devices. For about an hour, Panay talked about and showed off the tablets to Microsoft store employees and attendees, answering questions and giving away goodies to the crowd. Beginning in Seattle and making his way back to New York--where Surface 2 was announced--Panay is stopping by Microsoft stores around the country to personally spread the word about the new computers, a two week tour accompanied by Surface engineers leading up to the October 22nd product launch.
But to hear Panay describe the trip, it's not a tour, at least not in the same sense as a band going on a cross country victory lap after the release of a new album. The point of these visits is to meet Surface owners face to face, both to answer their questions and address their concerns. It's not about making himself a visible champion for Surface--which as its creator he certainly has been--but to be more transparent about the development and goal of the products. And it's in that spirit on transparency that we were granted a half hour conversation with Panay to talk about all things Surface.
A little bit of Inside Baseball before we dive into the specifics of the chat. Having an on-record interview with anyone representing a product or company is not like having a normal conversation. Product reps are well media-trained; they are very aware of what they can and won't talk about when it comes to current and future products. There's not much reason to straight-up ask questions for answers we're never going to get. Case in point, tech sites made a big deal on Monday about Panay's fielding of a question about smaller Surface tablets. And his response--that his team are thinking about and are working on different size Surface models--isn't particularly insightful or revealing. Of course Microsoft is exploring different Surface sizes, and of course they're aware of Intel's Bay Trail and other available hardware when they're already working on the next three generations of Surface. When I asked about potential collaborations with future Microsoft family member Nokia, it was no surprise that Panay would only say that he's excited by the opportunity.
Product reps--especially Corporate Vice Presidents of Microsoft--are going to be on message no matter what you ask them. (One fun thing to notice--how long can someone talk about a competitor's product without mentioning its name. With Panay, iPads and Android were named only 20 minutes in.)
So what's the point of this kind of interview? This wasn't a product briefing--we got that back when attended the Surface 2 announcement event in New York. We know about the hardware specs and new accessories and didn't need that demoed to us. There was also no point in grilling Panay about the critical reception and disappointing sales of the first Surface. This isn't an interrogation, after all, and it's not like Microsoft isn't well aware of the uphill battle facing Surface in the marketplace.
We didn't set out to get Panay to unearth any Microsoft secrets or get any admission of failure. What I wanted to do was get a better understanding of how Surface's designers see their products strengths and weaknesses, how they view the tablet and computing landscape, and how their strategy for competing in that market is reflected in the devices they have on hand. It'll be up to users to decide with their wallets whether that's the right strategy. And to Panay's credit, he was frank about almost everything we asked about.
Our conversation began on the topic of Surface 2 and Windows RT. We've made our feelings clear about last year's Surface RT: it was too slow for the apps that we wanted to run on it, and didn't have enough of those apps. It didn't fit our needs as power users, nor was it as as easy to use as an iPad. The Surface RT isn't something I would have given my parents. So who is the target user for the Surface? Panay didn't hesitate in his answer: "Students. I want to get this in the hands of as many students as possible." That's the ideal user for Surface 2, with productivity being the driving message behind the Surface product line. Panay ran through a list of things that tablets can do: browse the web, watch movies, video chat, run Flash. "Surface does everything people have come to expect from a tablet, with the added productivity of Office."
And that's the big competitive advantage in the eyes of Microsoft--the idea that Surface challenges the expectations of what abilities people have come to expect from tablets. And it's not just that Office RT is bundled in Windows RT, productivity stems from the Surface's physical design--its 10-inch touchscreen, kickstand, and touch/type covers. What we took away was that Surface RT and Surface 2 weren't designed to compete with iPad on casual use cases, but for their productivity capabilities. That goal informed the design decisions of Surface RT/2--why it's a relatively large tablet and why there is currently no smaller model.
While there's a lot of interest in smaller devices, Panay said, nobody asks about larger devices.
When asked how he thinks about the 7-inch tablet size and what he considers them good for, Panay agreed that different form factors suit different types of users, and said that they're "considering all form factors for all users." His current focus, however, is to think about perfecting the 10-inch tablet form factor. After acknowledging that 10-inch tablets face challenges like one-handed use, Panay points out that while there's a lot of interest in smaller devices, nobody asks about larger devices. There's still room to improve here.
In terms of improvements, Panay said the hardware goals for Surface 2 were "faster, thinner, lighter." Those plans were already set in motion before Surface RT's release, just as the next generation of Surface products are likely already in the works. When we asked if any of Surface 2's development was changed or influenced by the reception to Surface RT, Panay said that last year's release strengthened his team's conviction, but didn't affect product development. Screen resolution, performance, speakers, weight--these are the things Panay feels were the biggest criticisms of Surface RT that he feels are addressed in Surface 2. And the reason why there's no pressure-sensitive stylus in Surface RT, if the ideal user is a student? Cost.
But what about that app ecosystem? Panay again was frank in agreeing that launching with 10,000 apps last year wasn't enough--or at least didn't have enough of the apps that people wanted (Facebook and Twitter specifically mentioned). He's more confident now in the app store selection, while saying the app situation has room to improve. "I love challenging people to point out what they're missing [in the Windows store]," Panay said. And while it's been a while since we've tried relying on a Windows RT tablet and RT apps for our sole computing needs, that's something we'll undoubtedly be testing with Surface 2.
Another thing that's changed since Surface RT launched last year is the diminishing number of OEM partners making Windows RT devices. So we had to ask: how would Panay and Microsoft feel if Surface ended up being the only Windows RT tablet in the market? After a hearty laugh, Panay says that he'd have to be OK with it. He doesn't think and can't say that'll be the case, but again, that's not his area of focus. While Surface RT and Pro were launched as exemplary models of Windows 8 devices last year, that's not the case this year. "Surface was a stage for Windows 8. This year's Surfaces are a stage for Microsoft services." By that he means Skype and SkyDrive. That's why Surface 2's cameras and Wi-Fi are improved, and why Microsoft is bundling subscription features for both those services with Surface 2.
We then turned the conversation to Surface Pro 2, a category we're more upbeat about. That's because we know it's a capable laptop competitor, despite looking like a tablet. But that's something the mainstream public may not understand, so we asked about why Microsoft chose one brand to compete in two product categories--tablets and laptops. I specifically referred to Microsoft's commercials where Surface RT is compared directly to the iPad, and Panay agreed that the difference between RT and Pro is difficult to communicate in a TV ad. But "Pro users know they want Pro," and Panay is quick to point out that the people who brought Pro are very happy with it. They know they're buying a laptop, and the attach rate for a touch or type keyboard "is 100%."
"Wobbly" was a word that got thrown around a lot in the Surface design labs, and something the engineers were keen to address.
That lead us to talk about using Surface Pro as a laptop--that is, on the lap--which is something that Panay made a point to demo in New York last Monday. One of our criticisms of the Surface Pro was that it wasn't very usable on the lap--the type cover wasn't sturdy enough and the weight distribution was off. I wasn't sure how the additional tilt angle of the new kickstand (which Panay explicitly called "unbreakable") would address this, but it makes a little more sense now. Panay illustrated that by tilting further back, Surface Pro has a lower center of gravity on your lap, making it easier to keep stable. "Wobbly" was a word that got thrown around a lot in the Surface design labs, and something the engineers were keen to address. And those new covers, while thinner than last year's, are actually more rigid. When Will put the Surface Pro on his lap to give it a brief test during the interview, he said the typing experience was markedly improved.
I wondered if Surface's engineers look to other tablet convertibles like the Lenovo Helix when working on Surface Pro, but Panay said that he doesn't look at the Windows laptop ecosystem as competitors. What Windows 8 OEMs are doing with their hybrids are not his concern--if they succeed, it helps Microsoft. What he does look at is iPad and Android (that's when they were called out specifically.) According to Panay, users put tablets and laptops into separate silos in their head. They go to stores looking for one or the other, and most feel like they need both. The goal of Surface is to give them what they need in one device, on two sides of the usage spectrum. If the ideal user of the Surface 2 is the student, the ideal user for the Surface Pro is the "creative."
We wrapped up the chat with a nod to the new Touch covers, and the Surface Remix Project. Even though the Surface Music Kit is the only concept touch cover announced so far, Panay strongly implied that it's a low setup cost to build touch covers with custom layouts. The idea isn't to ask Surface users to buy a ton of accessories, but Panay of course wouldn't be specific about what creative fields they would be tackling next. One thing that both Panay and Surface engineer Stevie Bathiche were adamant in showing was the gesture support in the new touch covers. Swiping fingers across the keyboard and different characters produced useful typing shortcuts, making the entire keyboard akin to a large trackpad. Yet another new feature that potentially improves usability and productivity.
The biggest take away from the meeting was that Panay and Microsoft clearly don't think of the new Surface products as just spec bumps. They didn't keep the 10-inch tablet strategy because it was easier than a redesign, but because they really believe in the Surface design model. Kickstand, click-in keyboard covers, and obviously Windows 8. Panay and his team know what the strengths are for that model, and I'm sure they're aware of the compromises. But they will stand by it while continuing to make improvements, and hope that consumers will get the message.