Microsoft's Surface chief wants a consistent design across devices

Panos Panay on the Surface Book and the future of Microsoft's devices


Microsoft’s Panos Panay had a big week. Ever the entertainer, Panay appeared at Microsoft’s devices event earlier this week to introduce two new Lumia handsets, a Surface Pro 4, and the Surface Book. It was a massive event that even included a demo of Microsoft's HoloLens headset and a new wearable Microsoft Band in the space of nearly two hours of stage time.

Read next: The Surface Pro 4 review and Surface Book review.

A two-hour Microsoft event usually involves either a lot of enterprise features or code, but the software maker avoiding boring the audience to put on an impressive show.

Most of the focus was on Microsoft’s Surface Book, and rightly so. Microsoft somehow managed to keep the look of it secret, even if a few of us knew a laptop was in the works. Engineering aside, it wasn’t an easy task to keep it under wraps. Microsoft has been working on the Surface Book for nearly two years.

"A product like this takes years," explains Panay in an interview with The Verge. "Surface Book came about in the sense that a lot of people had been asking for a Surface laptop, right out the gate." While many wanted a Surface laptop, myself included, Microsoft didn't want to make a regular one. It started with the primary goal of making the best laptop possible, but with the versatility Surface is known for. Back when Panay and his team were planning the Surface Book around 18 months ago, a simple video served as the inspiration to bring it to life. "We told the story where we said in 18 months we're going to show everybody this thing as a laptop and at the very end we're going to remove the screen and show how much more it can be." That video surprised the crowd at Microsoft's event, and it was the best "one more thing" unveiling we've seen in years.

Microsoft Surface Laptop hands-on photos

So why is Microsoft making a laptop? "In Surface we look at it that we're going after premium and we want to reinvent categories," explains Panay. "That's why it was never just a laptop." Trackpads aside, Windows laptop makers usually do a good job of offering lots of different laptop styles, but it seems like the Surface Book is designed solely to push them. "Let's inspire, let's push to reinvent. Let's give something others to look at and go, 'Come on lets go do this, lets get this done,'" says Panay. "The OEMs, if they're going to make awesome devices I'd love it. That's how we think about it." Surface helped push tablet makers to create better two-in-one devices, so if Microsoft's goal is to push the laptop forward then expect some exciting laptops in the future.

It's mac vs. PC all over again

Panay may have nailed his presentation, but he also nailed Apple. He wasn't shy about comparing the Surface Pro 3 to the MacBook Air last year, and he was quick to compare the Surface Book to the MacBook Pro this time around. "It's not about going after anybody, it's not supposed to be that. It's framing," explains Panay. "When we launched the original Surface Pro, people compared it to an iPad, because I didn't frame it and I've regretted that ever since." Microsoft's original Surface Pro was a heavy and bulky PC, not a thin and light iPad. Apple has now created an iPad Pro that's clearly inspired by the Surface. While Apple has made the mistake of only including a single angle on its keyboard cover, much like the original Surface RT, Panay isn't ready to knock it just yet. "The iPad Pro looks like a great product. At the same time it looked familiar," he explains. "I haven't seen it, I haven't touched it. All I've seen is a launch event, so I've got to reserve my judgment."

It's clear that Microsoft is going head-to-head with Apple for premium devices. That might seem odd given that Apple is responsible for just eight of every one hundred computers shipped globally, according to IDC. Mac vs. PC history aside, Apple still takes a huge chunk of the profits from the PC industry. Microsoft obviously wants to address that, but it also can't target its partners like Dell, HP, and Lenovo. "Of course we're competing with Apple. I'm not shy to say it," says Panay. "That's where I put most of my energy. Making premium devices and reinventing categories, that essentially puts us in a camp to fundamentally compete with Apple devices."

Surface Book vs. MacBook Pro

One area where Microsoft still doesn't compete fully with Apple's premium devices is with the phone. Microsoft's latest Lumias were clearly in the works long before Panay took over Microsoft's phone business, but there's hope that future handsets will have a better design. By packing all of these announcements into a single event, it served as a subtle hint about the future of devices. Panay recently took over all of Microsoft's device work, including the Xbox, and it's hard to imagine he and his team won't push their Surface design skills into other products.

"We're not confused, we're not making any claims but we have a team with a commitment to getting to awesome products," explains Panay. "There will be generations of hardware that come with it; it will be telling and it will make a difference. We're not going to let go, we're pushing hard." Part of that pushing hard has to involve a Surface Phone, surely. Rumors suggest Microsoft is working on an Intel phone, which could boost its Continuum efforts to convert a phone into a real PC capable of running desktop apps. So is Microsoft really working on a Surface Phone? "That's a question I get asked a lot," says Panay as he laughs. It's not something he wants to answer, but he's happy to drop some hints about Microsoft's overall device lineup.

"Over time you want a consistent thread between the products, especially the hardware as well," he explains. "I think what you have to think with overall devices is making sure we are able to get that consistent premium fit and finish that people are expecting from Microsoft." That fit and finish involves "consistency across design" and "consistency across craftsmanship," says Panay. That doesn't mean brands will necessarily align, especially in the case of the Xbox, but it's hard not to see a Surface-inspired phone in the future even it's still labeled as a Lumia. "I think we are in a great spot right now," says Panay. "You always work off the foundation as a starting point, and this foundation we've got is phenomenal and the consistency will come."

"We're pumped."

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