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Can Microsoft's Panos Panay get Surface back on track?

Can Microsoft's Panos Panay get Surface back on track?


The man in charge of Surface talks power, performance, and 'lapability'

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Microsoft unveiled its Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 devices at an event in New York City yesterday. The new tablets look a lot like the original Surface RT and Surface Pro at first glance, but beneath the surface Microsoft has made some significant changes to speed and battery life, as well as to the devices' ability to be used comfortably in the lap. While many have questioned Microsoft's Surface efforts, it's clear that the company is very serious about its future as a "devices and services" company. We got a chance to sit down with Microsoft's Panos Panay, the man in charge of the company's Surface efforts, to talk about the new devices and the Surface's future.

“They had to be faster, they had to have longer battery life.”

One of the main goals of Microsoft's presentation was to explain why consumers would want to buy into Surface and the company's broader ecosystem. With a focus on creativity and productivity, Panay took to the stage and highlighted the device's ability to process 6K files from a Red Camera, along with a new Surface Music Cover that allows aspiring DJs to mix music. There's a bundling of Skype, Office, and SkyDrive, but the message was about speed and power for the Surface Pro 2, and even to a certain extent the Surface 2. "They had to be faster, they had to have longer battery life," says Panay. "We had to innovate, innovate, innovate."

There's one big new change in the device itself: a two-stage kickstand. "At the end of the day we need to solve the problem for using it on your lap," admits Panay, while noting there's a whole team at Microsoft focused on addressing the problem. A two-stage kickstand, new to the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2, helps with what Microsoft calls "lapability" or "lapable," two words Microsoft coined at the event. "We could have put five angles in the product, but now we're pushing it to the point where you start to cheapen it," says Panay. "You're going to pay for this product, you want a great product and you don't want it to break." Microsoft's new Touch, Type, and Power Covers also help. While they improve typing, they're also a lot more rigid, allowing you to use the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 on your lap. I tried both, and combined with the new angle it's a lot better than before. It's still not perfect, but it doesn't feel like it's going to drop off your lap anymore.

“When we created the original Surface RT, we did [it] in a vault.”

While the kickstand changes are clearly a reaction to feedback, Panay admits that Microsoft has been able to change other things because Surface is no longer a big secret. "When we created the original Surface RT, we did that truly in a vault," he says. "You only get genuine feedback after people have used it, and they've learned it, and they think they know what it is." This feedback also led the team to focus on battery life for the Surface Pro 2. "The biggest feedback we got on Pro was battery life," admits Panay. "The simple frustration was 'Man if it just had more battery life.'" While Microsoft isn't discussing exact estimates, Panay says his own personal tests have shown 10 to 11 hours of video playback. "When it goes into sleep mode it doesn't leak at all," he says. "Put it away for a month and come back and you've got all your power."

Power and kickstands aside, Microsoft's real innovation here isn't in the Surface 2 or Surface Pro 2 itself. It's more obvious in the company's new Touch, Type, and Power Covers. The second-generation Touch Cover now has 1092 sensors built into it, while the original Touch Cover just had 80 — mainly for the keys. Effectively, Microsoft has turned its cover into one giant touch screen, and it's only showing off a little of what it's really capable of today. A new Music Cover looks to be a way for Microsoft to extend the idea of what a Touch Cover can do. Equipped with volume dials and pads to mix music, it's the best example of the future of Surface. It certainly feels like Microsoft is pushing the idea of its covers as a second surface for interaction with a tablet (think Courier), and it's something that some other device makers have tried in the past, but nobody has really conquered.

Does the Surface future include a mini 7- or 8-inch tablet?

"We're working on a lot of stuff," says Panay, while noting that Microsoft will continue to make Surface products primarily for productivity. "They will continue to be various shapes and sizes." A long-rumored Surface "mini" is expected to be announced soon, but Panay and Microsoft officials remained quiet on the possibility of a 7- or 8-inch model. When asked how a smaller device could be productive, Panay simply laughed and quipped, "If I told you how I'd do that I'd be giving one or two things away." A Surface mini seems increasingly likely, despite Microsoft's silence, and for Panay and the Surface team it seems like the next logical step in the progression of the "devices and services" strategy. "There are so many amazing productivity opportunities out there that people can love, and then they can love their devices and have fun on top of that," says Panay. "Size is a massive part of that."