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.”
June 15, 2017 / Comments Off on Microsoft’s hardware boss explains the strangest thing about the Surface Pro
I’ve been waiting for Microsoft’s Surface Pro 5 for what seems like years. Now I know that my wait will never end.
There will be no Surface Pro 5.
There is a Surface Pro.
On Tuesday in China, Microsoft finally unveiled the follow-up to its popular convertible/ultra-portable the Surface Pro 4 and, as rumored, it’s simply called the Surface Pro.
The device will be instantly recognizable to Surface Pro 4 fans, but promises a brighter screen, 20% better performance, 13.5 hours of battery life and sub-1.7-pound weight.
Plus, there’s that retired numbering system.
Microsoft didn’t invent the number drop. Years ago, Apple cleaned up its iPad product line by first calling an iPad update “The new iPad” (sort of) and eventually just “iPad.”
For Microsoft, though, the change may be more meaningful.
“It’s really important that people understand this is it — this is the product where all four generations have come together, and there’s this massive leap, this meaningful leap that comes with this product that, we think, brings to life customers’ needs, through and through,” Microsoft Corporate Vice President of Devices Panos Panay said during a private meeting at Microsoft’s Building 88 in Redmond, Washington, where he gave me a preview of the new device.
Panay, who is one of the more intense and effusive people I know, is beaming.
“I’m in this place where I get so excited about it, I think partially because Surface Pro is my baby,” he tells me. And it’s true: I first met Microsoft’s Surface device at the same time as I met Panay, and his enthusiasm for the then-nascent brand and unusual product design was off the charts. It’s one reason I started using the Surface Pro 3 (and eventually 4) as my everyday device. Panay always believed passionately in the Surface Pro, which made me believe, too.
Panay always believed passionately in the Surface Pro, which made me believe, too.
As he prepared to show me the Surface Pro, Panay reminded me of what was, for him, a key moment in the life of the Surface brand, when he spotted me, a tech reporter, using it at CES. He told me that I was one of the first in my field to jump on it, adding, “I’m 100% sure of that because I track you guys more than you think.’” Leaving aside the concern that Panay might be paying maybe a little too much attention to the tech press, I get it.
People like me try different products every day, but it’s the rare one that we invite into our everyday lives. I did it because I saw something special in, what was at the time, the Surface Pro 3. Could this eponymous update live up to its predecessors?
Panay told me the new product perfectly aligns with Microsoft’s mission of empowering every person and organization of the planet to achieve more and the conviction, shared by Panay and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, that great software must be accompanied and brought to life by great hardware.
“The new Surface Pro is the crescendo for that moment,” said Panay.
While it may seem odd to reach the crescendo in China, Panay told me that Surface is “a global brand now, and China happens to be the Surface line’s second biggest market.
Even though Panay tells me that the update to the new Surface Pro features 800 new parts, I have trouble, at first, discerning the visual differences. Perhaps that’s because most of the design changes are quite subtle.
The Surface Pro 4 vent channel, which runs around the perimeter of the display, is now so thin you can no longer see the vent grill. Also, the Surface Pro’s recognizable, flat chassis edge now has a pleasing little arc. I tease Panay that this finger-friendly curve might help Microsoft prepare for the future, long-rumored Surface Phone.
“Good, good, that’s a good thought,” laughed Panay, adding playfully, “There’s a lot of questions about that, but I don’t really remember any of the answers.”
Beyond that, though, the materials, screen size and resolution, ports (still USB 3.0, no USB-C) and other design elements are virtually the same as they were with the Surface Pro 4 and, as Panay sees it, with good reason.
“We know people love it,” he said, adding that he doesn’t want customers relearning how to use it. “My job isn’t reinventing that every time,” he said.
That’s why so many of the changes in the Surface Pro are either inside or an extension of an existing feature.
The product’s kickstand and hinge, for example, now folds almost all the way onto the back of the tablet, supporting a new “Studio Mode” — a possible reference to the easel-size Surface Studio. To do so, Microsoft had to redesign the hinge, not only to support the freedom of movement, but to ensure that someone leaning on the screen while writing or drawing wouldn’t break it.
Studio Mode, is also an effort to encourage more Surface Pen use. The other portion of that strategy comes in the Pen itself, which, like the Surface Pro, looks unchanged on the outside, but has new technology in the inside.
The battery-powered, Bluetooth Surface Pen now recognizes 4,096 levels of pressure (up from 1,024), includes tilt sensitivity, and activates with just 12 milligrams of pressure (down from 20).
Those are exciting specs for digital-pen and stylus enthusiasts, but Panay wants to show me something else. I watch as he signs his name on the Surface Pro screen. The digital ink appears to be coming out of the tip of the Surface Pen.
I’m not imagining things.
Microsoft developed a new piece of silicon that sits between the display and graphics controllers, opening a communication channel between the pen and the display that makes pen flow virtually instantaneous.
“It’s a leap in pen performance,” said Steven Bathiche, whose title is distinguished scientist, Microsoft Applied Sciences. He’s showing me research prototypes to illustrate the wizardry behind the new pen and ink technology.
Bathiche described a custom piece of silicon, which sits on the display, that decreases ink latency by 130%. “The latency is so low it’s almost ahead of the app,” said Bathiche.
To demonstrate the power of the new silicon, Bathiche shows me a display teardown where he could turn the chip on an off. On the screen was a red square. Bathiche had me touch the square and use my finger to drag it around the screen. It followed well enough but was lagging behind my digit just enough that I could always see the whole red square. Then Bathiche turned on the accelerator. Now, the square remained under my fingertip, no matter how quickly I moved it around.
“Ink is a Microsoft birthright,” said Han-yi Shaw, group program manager, Office hardware innovation team, who told me that simulating paper and pen is not new, but it’s never really been done in an accurate way. Shaw believes that’s changing with this product.
Microsoft made other adjustments to the pen technology including the new electrode near the tip that lets the operating system keep track of angle. Bathiche showed me an original, working prototype so I could see how the system keeps track of the pen tilt in real-time.
As mentioned, Microsoft also dropped the amount of pressure needed for the pen to mark the screen, to 12 milligrams. “The slightest touches, [it] captures nuances. It’s about digitizing intent and expression,” said Bathiche who encouraged me to try lightly drawing with one of the new pens on the new Surface Pro. I did and was impressed with how lightly I could draw and still get a faint line.
Microsoft is also extending the Pen utility with Windows Ink enhancements like the ability to find your favorite pen settings on any Surface device where you’re signed in. There’s also a new Whiteboard application, which is essentially a shared Whiteboard that supports real-time inking and collaboration on a virtual whiteboard for multiple Surface users.
Performance and connectivity
Microsoft is also extending the fanless design up to an intel Core i5 CPU, which means most of Surface Pro users may have completely silent systems. Core i7 systems will still need a fan. “We push the i7, we push hard,” said Panay.
It’s also worth noting that the sub-1.7 lb. weight is only for the Intel core m3. The i5 model weighs 1.7 lbs. and the i7 (all 7th Generation) weighs 1.73 lbs. Memory options range from 4G up to 16 GB of RAM and storage ranges from 128 GB SSD up to a 1 TB option. There’s also a micro-SD slot for storage expansion.
The Surface Pro will finally join the mobile broadband universe, adding an undetectable LTE antenna. Panay turned the Surface Pro over in his hands and pointed out there are no antenna lines or windows (like the LTE iPad’s distinctive strip).
A Wi-Fi only Surface Pro launches on June 15. The LTE version should arrive a few months later.
There are a handful of other noticeable changes, like an improved Type Cover keyboard with better key travel that, for me, improved an already excellent typing experience, a more precise trackpad, boosted speakers for 20% more volume and something that seemed to disappear.
Microsoft didn’t bother to upgrade the 8- and 5-megapixel back and front cameras, respectively, but it’s harder to see where the front-facing camera sits in the chrome just above the screen.
“We basically made them [the cameras] go away with new technology in our black mask that let us mute the look of the cameras a bit,” said Panay.
Any time you alter a successful brand, there’s concern that you lose or muddle the identity. The Surface Pro 4 and the Surface tablets before it all have that iconic look: the magnesium body and sharp, almost retro edges.
Is Panay concerned that, by smoothing things out and making the device a little more approachable, he’s messing with an icon?
Panay took the nearest Surface Pro and turned it so I was staring at its profile. “This is the icon, Lance. This is the icon that the product leans on,” he said gesturing to the kickstand. “That’s what the product was created on. We won’t touch that.”
May 23, 2017 / Comments Off on The inside story behind the new Microsoft Surface Pro
One of the highlights of Microsoft’s freshly announced Surface Pro tablet is new Surface Pen.
It looks exactly like the old pen, but Microsoft reengineered it to amp up the pressure sensitivity, add tilt awareness, and radically reduce latency so the digital ink looks as if its flowing right out of the real pen tip.
“People wanted to write as accurately and small as on paper,” said Steven Bathiche, distinguished scientist, Microsoft Applied Sciences, who showed me how all the new technology translates to a more effective pen experience.
However, nothing showcases the pen’s new capabilities like Microsoft’s new collaboration tool Whiteboard, which I saw in action at a private demo at Microsoft’s Redmond campus.
“It’s a limitless, real-time collaboration canvas,” said Ian Mikutel, Senior project manager lead, digital ink experiences.
As I watched, Mikutel opened the Whiteboard app, which look like a moistly blank white board, on a Windows 10 Surface Studio. Beside it, Mikutel had another Surface Studio and a Surface Pro. They were also running Whiteboard.
Mikutel started writing on his Whiteboard and then Bathiche did the same on the second Surface Studio and Han-yi Shaw, Group Program Manager, Office Hardware Innovation Team, picked up the Surface Pro.
What Bathiche and Shaw were writing appeared simultaneously on Mikutel’s screen. He told me the instant sharing of ink strokes is part of a new, patented technology called “Live Ink.” In addition, each participant’s lines were accompanied by tiny avatars (small, round picture of their faces). This is called “local ink identity.”
When I asked Mikutel how many people could collaborate at once he said, “up to a lot of people,” though the typical collaboration group size is between five and seven people.
‘No more taking photos of the whiteboard at the end of the meeting.’
The app is built specifically for Surface devices and the Surface Pen. In developing it, the Microsoft team focused on ink intelligence, speed and inker identity. The system also includes shape recognition. Draw a circle and it will turn into a cleaner and more manipulable one.
“No more taking photos of the whiteboard at the end of the meeting,” smiled Mikutel who added that users can output the Whiteboard image in a variety of formats.
The only issue I saw in Whiteboard is that, because the Whiteboard canvas is truly limitless, collaborators can get a bit lost in it. At one point Shaw was drawing on the same Whiteboard as Mikutel, but we couldn’t see it on the main board because Mikutel was zoomed in while Shaw’s writing was a significant virtual distance away.
I noticed that Mikutel’s drawing color was a rainbow color. It is, apparently, a very popular inking color and one that was suggested by a seventh grader. Mikutel said he was in a classroom asking, if they could have any Ink feature, what would they want. One girl piped up, “I think it would be really cool if Ink looked like a rainbow.”
May 23, 2017 / Comments Off on Microsoft Whiteboard is the virtual collaboration tool we’ve been dreaming of
Panos Panay, Microsoft’s energetic Surface devices chief, says, “There’s no such thing as a Pro 5.”
Speaking with CNET, Panay essentially admits the company’s letting the nearly two-year-old Surface Pro 4 languish. He believes the Surface Pro 4, outdated as it is in terms of specs, will still be solid for another five years. “If people don’t want to buy our Pro 4 at this time, that’s OK.”
Rather than follow the usual PC cycle with minor refreshes to the internals, Panos says Microsoft will put out a new Surface Pro when there are enough “meaningful” changes such as significantly improved battery life or serious weight reduction.
“Meaningful change isn’t necessarily a hardware change, which is what a lot of people look for. They’re like, ‘Where’s the latest processor?’ I’m looking for an experiential change that makes a huge difference in product line,” Panos says.
Panos’ logic mirrors another tech giant’s hardware philosophy: Apple’s. Though Apple used to update its Macs frequently to accommodate new chipsets, it has now basically moved to a “whenever” schedule. Before the new MacBook Pros were released last October, the MacBook Pros went un-updated for over a year. The iMac was last updated in October 2015 and the Mac Mini in October 2014.
The Surface Pro is more of an aspiration reference design for PC makers.
In a way, it kind of makes sense for Microsoft to hold off on releasing a new Surface Pro. People just don’t replace their PCs very often. In fact, people are hanging onto their PCs even longer than ever before.
“[The] replacement cycle for the PC has extended,” Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said last year. “Four years was the average, now it has moved to about five to six years.”
Moreover, the Surface Pro (and the rest of the Surface lineup, for that matter) was never meant to be the flagship of the PC world. The Surface Pro is more of an aspiration reference design for which other PC makers could model their own devices after. And model they have — there are now tons of respectable Surface clones available from the likes of Samsung, Lenovo, Acer and more. If you want a new Surface Pro-like device with the latest chips and features, there are plenty to pick from that aren’t from Microsoft.
Rumors have suggested Microsoft might announce the Surface Pro 5 at Microsoft Build this week or at its event in Shanghai on May 23, but it’s looking more likely that’s not going to happen. But if not a new Surface Pro, then what new hardware will Microsoft unveil? And would you be happy if it just trots out an updated Surface Pro 4 with new guts?
May 8, 2017 / Comments Off on Microsoft won’t launch new Surface Pro until there are ‘meaningful’ upgrades