Panos Panay, Microsoft’s Windows device lead, is not just the face of the Surface brand. He’s essentially its father, too.
Panay, who joined Microsoft 13 years ago to work on the Device Group (which was mainly keyboards and mice at the time) was part of the initial team tasked with building a Surface Tablet for Windows 8.
The Surface brand predates Microsoft’s first tablet. It already existed as a giant tabletop touchscreen, meant primarily as a kind of interactive kiosk for retail businesses, restaurants, and hotels. It was the opposite of a mobile device.
During this week’s MashTalk podcast, Panay recounted how he and his team spent years in, essentially, a bunker-like existence, unable to tell even their families what they were working on.
The real relief came not so much during the surprise 2012 unveiling in California, and afterward Panay and his team were able to go home to their families and finally reveal what they’d been working on for two years.
Panay has also overseen the transformation of the Surface product line: It began as a tablet that lived somewhere between Windows and Android (remember Windows RT?) and has become the sharp point at the tip of an aggressive hardware strategy — to make Surface one of the premier consumer-technology brands in the world.
That’s been done through a steady refinement of the product and a broadening of the Surface ideal into all-in-ones, performance convertibles and now traditional laptops. On Thursday, Microsoft’s latest Surface devices, the Surface Pro and the Surface Laptop, launch to the public.
The Surface has also been supported by the opening and expansion of Microsoft Stores, where Surface products own the prime real estate.
Panay told Mashable that those stores serve an important purpose.
“They’re critical,” he said. Panay explained that in a world that values stories and storytellers, having stores with smart sales people who care about the product makes the story of the Surface “more functional, emotional, relatable. You can talk to someone who really cares about the product, understands what it’s there for.”
Now, with five different Surfaces to choose from (including the gigantic Surface Hub digital “whiteboard”), this kind of in-person guidance, and the ability to touch and try the products, can make all the difference.
“So that point where you walk in and, ‘Hey, which one do you want, which laptop? The versatile one, the performant, or the personal one?’ and they can sit there and tell you a story for each one.”
“In the element of our brand-building across Microsoft, it’s where you will see all the hardware and software come together and somebody able to put it together for you,” said Panay.
The high end
In those stores, though, Surface customers may notice that most of Microsoft’s tablet and touch computers are more expensive that third-party Windows 10 counterparts. For this, Panay is unapologetic. He acknowledges that, much as Apple has done, Microsoft is building a premium brand.
“It is about pride and craftsmanship. It is about premium fit and finish,” said Panay.
Essentially, Surface products are now intended to reflect the apex of what’s possible with Windows 10 products and to sell millions of those products direct to customers.
“We’re not here to make tradeoffs to hold costs down,” he added.
There are, though, issues to deal with on the pricing and packaging front. Right now, a Surface Pro sells for $799 without the Type Cover ($129.99) and the Surface Pen ($59.99). Buy them all and you pay full price. For consumers, there are no bundle pricing options.
Panay attributes the lack of bundle options to the need to maintain as much choice (color options, basically) as possible across the keyboard and pen lines.
However, Microsoft rarely refers to the Surface Pro as a tablet. “We believe you need a keyboard with this product, believe you should use a pen with this product,” he told us.
When we suggest that there could be a $100 discount for buying all three, Panay called it “good feedback.”
The newest Surface
We also talked about recent criticism of the new Surface Laptop, which ships with Windows 10 S, a restricted version of Windows that will only run apps from the Windows Store (that’s right, no Google Chrome). Microsoft says this is to protect users (primarily students) from malware and to ensure the maximum possible battery life (Microsoft claims up to 14.5 hours for video playback).
As for those who want a more unfettered experience, they can upgrade, at no cost until the end of the year (and for $50 afterward), the Surface Laptop to Windows 10 Pro, but can never go back to 10 S.
Panay is not concerned about the reception to this restriction.
“It’s a little different than anything we’ve talked about in the past, where it’s like, ‘Here it is, and we know it’s good for you, so, enjoy’ and then it’s not. In this case, if you don’t think it is, you just switch out and you move to Pro.”