Microsoft’s Surface chief, Panos Panay, is pumped, and that’s not an unusual thing.
A week after introducing the Surface Laptop to the world, he’s sitting in a room in Microsoft’s Building 88 ready to show off his team’s latest creation: the new Surface Pro. At first glance, it looks a lot like 2015’s Surface Pro 4, but it’s part of a bigger lineup of the entire Surface family that Microsoft is now ready to take worldwide.
For the first time in Surface history, Microsoft will start shipping two new products (Surface Pro and Surface Laptop) worldwide at launch. June 15th will see these new products launch, and a big expansion for the Surface Studio all-in-one PC, too. It’s clearly a date that Microsoft has been working toward for quite some time, and as I walked around Microsoft’s secretive Surface building located at its Redmond, Washington, campus, it’s easy to see that the Surface family of devices is now coming to life.
“We’ve taken our time to get that right, we’ve been pretty patient,” explains Panay. “We feel like the family’s launching... that was one of the goals, to be able to have the moment... walk in [a Microsoft Store], there’s the Surface table, what product is best for you to come to the family. That was important.”
This Surface family now includes a new Pro, which is more of a refinement over the previous device rather than any radical changes. “We’ve hit that spot where we’re aware what the product is supposed to be for every single customer,” explains Panay. “We’ve gotten to the point where it would have been a shame to call this Surface Pro 5. This is Surface Pro.” The new Surface Pro includes Intel’s latest processors, a claimed 13.5 hours of battery life, an improved hinge, a refined design, and a much better stylus for illustrators and designers. Microsoft is even shipping a Surface Pro with LTE support — an option that’s long been missing from the Pro line — later this year. “It’s where we wanted to be, and we’re here,” says Panay. “So I get pumped.”
Panos Panay is confident the new Surface Pro will be a success, and that’s part of the reason it will be available worldwide at launch. Microsoft is taking a big bet on both the Surface Laptop and Surface Pro by shipping them worldwide, and it will be a test of how well it has planned logistically for inventory and demand. Microsoft previously took a $900 million loss on its original Surface RT, largely because the company overestimated demand and manufactured too many devices. It was a painful lesson that the Surface team has learned from, and Microsoft has launched Surface devices gradually in regions worldwide ever since. June 15th is different.
“I believe it will be the fastest adopted Pro we’ve ever shipped,” says Panay. “There’s a reason for that, the brand is here and there’s people who have been waiting for it, and it turns out it’s just a kick-ass device.” It’s also the original device that really kicked off the idea of Surface. “This is our baby, the Surface brand was created on the back of Surface Pro,” explains Panay. “We created this category... we’re just going to keep throwing energy at it so it’s perfect for the customer, which is important.”
Looking at all the Surface devices side by side, the family aspect is clear. There’s a Surface Book for performance, a Surface Laptop for most consumers, a Surface Pro for the combination of tablet and laptop, and a Surface Studio for a new take on the all-in-one PC. It’s the kind of impressive hardware lineup you’d expect from a company like Apple, but it’s actually Microsoft bringing it to life. Thanks to the new Surface Laptop, there’s now a computer for everyone in Microsoft’s Surface family. The only device that’s missing is a phone, but it’s not clear if Microsoft will ever venture into that space again.
I also got the chance to tour Microsoft’s Building 87 during my visit to see the new Surface Pro. It’s an unassuming building that contains the company’s extraordinary hardware labs where Microsoft engineers create future devices. The front desk is chaired by Debbie Lueder, who reminds of me Michael Caine’s Alfred character from Batman, controlling access to a building full of machines and secrets.
The last time I visited Microsoft’s Surface buildings, the company had a few floors in another building; now the operation is huge. Inside is a mix of equipment, machine shops, laboratories, and talented engineers. I met with a variety of engineers, but Gopal Gopal stood out. He works in the quietest room in the world, Microsoft’s anechoic chamber, and he’s a master of sound. Gopal stood and talked to me like his voice was buffering during a bad phone call, intentionally missing words to demonstrate the type of problems he works on. The way he held a conversation like that simply blew my mind.
Microsoft’s machinery, 3D printers, and anechoic chambers are all impressive, but it’s the combined investment that’s most striking. Microsoft has engineers like Stevie Bathiche, Ralf Groene, and Ron Smith, all working on these Surface devices, and it’s infectious to watch them describe with passion how this hardware comes to life.
I’ve always wondered whether Microsoft is simply trying to push the PC industry forward, testing out its own hardware, or just attempting to beat Apple at its own game. It’s now clear to me that, starting on June 15th, Microsoft is getting serious about its Surface family of hardware. That’s a risky bet, especially as the company had “lower than expected Surface Pro unit volume” during its recent quarterly results, but Microsoft looks well positioned to push the Surface line forward with the new Laptop and Pro devices.
Microsoft now has four distinct PCs, two buildings dedicated to Surface, and hundreds of engineers figuring out things like how people type to the amount of light required for backlit keyboards. It's a big operation now, and while we don't know how much Microsoft is spending on Surface, when you add up this amount of investment, it's clearly a lot.
The company doesn't seem to be slowing down, either. “We have so many inventions to come, our future is super bright,” explains Panay. “For now, the customer who wants to be productive or creative, this is it. It might be because it’s my baby, but at the end of the day this [the Surface Pro] is the perfect product for that. I love the Laptop, I love Book, I adore Studio... but this is where it all started.”