Microsoft Surface defined 10 years of Windows PCs — can it nail the next 10?

In the weeks before the first Surface tablet was announced, at a time when the secret new device was still hidden inside window-free rooms at Microsoft’s headquarters, a video producer was tasked with creating a sizzle reel to help introduce the new tablet. He needed to film everything: the kickstand, the ports, and the all-important keyboard cover. And for some extra flair, he wanted to film the components of the tablet individually, so he started to take the unit apart. That proved to be a problem.

“The bottom of Surface RT batteries were glued onto the magnesium chassis,” Ralf Groene, head of Windows and devices research and design, recalled in an interview with The Verge. “So he takes a screwdriver and pries the battery open and then he pierces it and it pops!” There was smoke, fire. The whole building got shut down.

This month, the Surface lineup turns 10 years old, and Microsoft is releasing its latest generation of PCs. That includes a tablet, the Surface Pro 9, that looks a whole lot like the one that blew up in a secret room in Redmond back in 2012. In fact, a whole lot of devices look like that tablet these days: Apple’s iPad, Dell’s XPS 13 2-in-1, Asus’ ExpertBook, and many more. What 10 years ago was an oddball bet for Microsoft, often laughed at with concerns around “lapability” and reliability, is now the standard format for a 2-in-1. Microsoft got it right.

But much like that early fiery incident, the Surface team occasionally pushes too far in its quest to design the next category-defining product. Ten years ago, the company blazed a new trail. It’s still searching for what comes next — even through some messy results.

Panos Panay with the original Surface and this year’s Surface Pro 9.

“I believe there’s going to be different form factors for everybody, and there won’t be one single form factor that wins,” Panay says

This year, Microsoft is launching a refined collection of Surface devices that demonstrate exactly why Surface exists. There’s the Surface Pro 9, which is now a mix of the Surface RT and Surface Pro from 10 years ago thanks to a choice between Arm or Intel chips.

Sure, the display is larger now, the body is more refined, and the keyboard and stylus are much improved, but the fundamentals of a kickstand, keyboard, and touchscreen tablet remain today. It’s essentially Microsoft’s own MacBook Air — a reliable all-purpose computing device that gets refined every year.

Then there’s the Surface Laptop 5, Microsoft’s latest take on the classic laptop form factor, and the Surface Studio 2 Plus, which might not be powered on the latest components but still has a wow factor with its 28-inch display that can move and float between desktop and drawing modes. This trio — tablet, laptop, and desktop — is what the Surface team hoped to launch 10 years ago.

“We started with a tablet, we’ll have a laptop, and we’ll have a desktop,” says Panos Panay, Microsoft’s Surface and Windows chief, in an interview with The Verge. The original idea of Surface was to bring Windows 8 to life with devices designed around the operating system’s new touch-friendly interface. “Each one had a unique twist to Windows 8 at the time, but two fell off. We just couldn’t do them… we bit off more than we could chew.”

PCs were at a turning point 10 years ago. Touchscreens had just arrived, and Windows tablets weren’t really a thing. Nobody was sure how Windows would adapt to touchscreens and tablets. But with Apple’s sleek Arm-powered iPad newly on the scene, the pressure was on for Microsoft to respond. 

The Surface team set out to create a formula for Windows tablets. At the time, Microsoft wasn’t just trying to bring its own hardware to life; it was also trying to make Windows on Arm a reality, adopting the battery-friendly mobile-style processors that Apple had proven could work in a larger form factor.

“Those times were a little daunting… we were learning to build hardware at some level. We had Xbox, we had accessories, but this was a whole new level,” Panay says. In the early days, the Surface team went through hundreds of concepts for a tablet without the click-in keyboard that has defined the device over the past decade. “Not one model had the click-in concept, the kickstand, none of it,” Panay says.

Eventually, the team landed on the goal of getting Microsoft Office running smoothly on a tablet. “Office is one of the most important things people do on these things,” Panay says. “Let’s get after it in a different way.”

The original Surface concept was made out of string and plastic.

The original Surface concept was made out of string and plastic.

That led to the combo of keyboard cover, kickstand, and touchscreen. And while the first-generation Surface debuted to mixed reviews, the line really clicked a couple years later with the Surface Pro 3. Reviewers and commentators had been debating the “lapability” of the first two Surface Pro models, but Pro 3 answered the debate with an adjustable kickstand and a thin and lightweight form factor. Surface suddenly made sense.

The Surface has unquestionably been a success for Microsoft. The line did more than $6 billion in revenue during Microsoft’s 2021 fiscal year, and the latest quarter saw revenue jump 13 percent. But along the way, the Surface team has sought to define what a next-generation formula might look like for other devices, too: laptops, phones, all-in-ones — even whatever tablets look like after the Surface. The result has been some clever creations but also some missteps — and nothing that’s been quite as category defining as the Surface Pro.

That starts with the very first product. The Surface RT launched in October 2012, designed as a showcase for a new touch-friendly version of Windows that ran on Arm processors. But it soon became clear that the bet on Arm and a restrictive Windows RT version wasn’t enough. Early reviews of the Surface RT revealed it had performance issues, a lack of tablet apps, and a special version of Windows that had a desktop mode you couldn’t do much with.

Microsoft’s Surface efforts started off with a $1 billion write-down disaster

Microsoft took a nearly $1 billion hit on Surface RT around six months after its launch because the company had simply built too many devices that it couldn’t sell. It was a near disaster for the entire Surface project.

Days after the news of the $1 billion write-down made headlines around the world, the Surface team of around 300 people was all standing in a lab they were still in the middle of building. Panay had called an all-hands meeting, and it was a tense moment for the team.

“I just said, ‘Everybody stand up and take a step forward.’ They did, we all did together, as a team,” recounts Panay, his voice softening with emotion. “I said, ‘We have a plan, stay in the boat, keep rowing your oar. We’re going to get there. We have a plan, stick with it.’”

The Surface Pro 3 really clicked for everyone outside of Microsoft.

The Surface Pro 3 really clicked for everyone outside of Microsoft.

Two years later, the Surface team found itself in nearly the same position. Microsoft was planning to launch a Surface Mini alongside the Surface Pro 3. The company had made thousands of them, but just weeks before launch, Microsoft’s new CEO at the time, Satya Nadella, didn’t think the Surface Mini should launch.

“It was Satya’s leadership that helped us through that back then,” Panay says. The Surface Mini had a stylus and was designed to be a notepad-like device, but Panay says that “wasn’t enough” to launch. “Office didn’t render great on it… the end-to-end value wasn’t in place.”

It was another tough blow for the Surface team, just 18 months after the write-down. There were tears in the halls outside the meeting where the team was told of the decision to scrap the Surface Mini just weeks before it was supposed to launch. But the message from Panay to the team was similar to the write-down. “Grab your oars, let’s go. Wipe the tears. Check your goals. Let’s go.” 

Microsoft has had successes over the years beyond the tablet. There’s the Surface Studio, an all-in-one PC that’s unlike anything we’ve seen before in the PC space thanks to its hinge that lets you push the display down into a drawing mode. There’s the Surface Laptop, Microsoft’s take on the classic laptop. Plus there are some smaller Surface tablets, more affordable laptops, a giant Surface Hub interactive touchscreen for in-person collaboration, and even a host of accessories to complement the main hardware.

But when the Surface team has reached further — trying, perhaps, to once again define what a category can look like — Microsoft’s designs have stumbled as often as they’ve impressed. The Surface Book put a removable tablet display on a traditional laptop body, but the approach never went mainstream. The Laptop Studio that replaces it is an extravagant device that morphs into different modes, but we’re waiting to see if the rest of the industry copies this particular design this time.

A prototype of the Surface Studio Laptop with a Surface Pro and new keyboard and trackpad all taped together.

A prototype of the Surface Studio Laptop with a Surface Pro and new keyboard and trackpad all taped together.

The Surface Duo and Surface Neo are perhaps Microsoft’s most ambitious attempts to define next-generation devices so far. Surface Duo, an Android-powered dual-screen smartphone, offers Microsoft’s vision for the future of mobile devices. The combination of software and hardware still needs improvements, but it’s already improved a lot in one generation. If it follows the path of the Surface Pro 3, then the third generation could be where it suddenly clicks for everyone. 

The Surface Neo, on the other hand, promised to reimagine Windows for dual-screen devices. But the tablet-like dual-screen product was put on hold after the pandemic hit, and Microsoft refocused its efforts on traditional PCs and laptops as millions of people suddenly had to work from home. The Surface Neo isn’t totally dead, though. It’s still sitting inside Microsoft’s Surface roadmap room. Panay still thinks there’s a future for it or something similar.

Panay still sees a future for dual-screen, foldable, or even rollable devices

“Whether it’s two screens or a foldable, I do think these are realities to the future of products being made, no doubt,” says Panay. “Or a rollable for that matter, a rollable screen. It’s maybe not something I’ve decided on, but for sure how do we serve the form factor that’s going to adapt to the person I think is the way to think about it.”

And Microsoft did get something out of the terminated product. Its operating system, a new streamlined and lightweight version called Windows 10X designed specifically for dual-screen hardware, went on to become Windows 11 and offer the types of simplifications in Windows that we see today.

“We were able to envision 10X through the lens of Surface Neo, which allowed us to not bring forward the 20 years of the Windows history and all the problems we’d tried to solve on a single-screen device,” says Carmen Zlateff, who was the engineering lead on Windows 10X. “Once the project was paused, we looked at it and said, ‘This is what customers want anyway: simple, modern, calm.’”

The Surface Neo looked like the future of Microsoft’s tablets until it was put on hold once the pandemic began.

The Surface Neo looked like the future of Microsoft’s tablets until it was put on hold once the pandemic began.

In the times I’ve spoken to Panay over the past years, he always refuses to discuss future Surface products, but he’ll drop some hints. “My favorite part of meeting with Tom Warren is he’ll always ask me what the next product is,” jokes Panay as I ask him whether there will be a Surface gaming laptop one day. I’ve always wanted to see what Microsoft could do for PC gaming, but Panay says he “doesn’t think it’s about Surface hardware” and said Microsoft will rely on OEMs to serve that part of the market for now.

But the feeling I got from visiting Microsoft’s Surface team recently is that the future of Surface increasingly looks Arm-powered. That’s ironic given Microsoft’s struggles to adapt Windows to Arm over the past decade, but the company seems confident enough to market the Surface Pro 9 as a single device where you can pick to have either an Intel chip or Microsoft’s Arm-based SQ3 processor inside. 

Panay thinks Arm is at the point where it’s just another chip to pick, like you’d weigh up AMD or Intel options. “I don’t think it’s about on Arm or not anymore; that’s just gone,” claims Panay. “I feel like we’re at this point where it’s just Windows… and which device do you need?”

The Surface Pro 9 in laptop mode seen from above. The screen displays a desktop background with a light blue ribbon.

Microsoft looks at the Surface Pro 9 with its Arm chip as important to the future of its Surface lineup.

A big part of that confidence in Arm comes from the work Microsoft has been doing in artificial intelligence on its Arm-powered Surface devices. There are a variety of features on the Surface Pro 9 with SQ3 that aren’t available on the Intel side, including a Voice Focus feature that removes background noise without hitting the CPU or GPU.

“We are at the point where all our lives we’ve been trying to learn the computer, but now, the computer learns us,” Groene says. “We’re at a tipping point. It’s going to be profoundly different. It’s like moving from a typewriter to a laptop. Yeah, you still write letters, but how and what you do is very different.”

Microsoft is very early in this work, and there have been persistent rumors about the company building its own Arm chips for servers and Surface PCs. For now, Microsoft partners with Qualcomm, and the Surface Pro 9 ships with a neural processing unit (NPU) that powers experiences Microsoft believes will transform PCs in the future.

AI “will have a potentially profound impact on how you use your computer and how it will essentially evolve in regards to its form,” says Steven Bathiche, the head of Microsoft’s applied sciences group, a team that’s pursuing whatever is next in computing. Microsoft is willing to build new hardware to take advantage of AI. The Surface smart camera is the best example of that, and there’s bound to be more.

The 2022 Surface lineup includes the Surface Pro 9, Surface Studio 2 Plus, and Surface Laptop 5.

The 2022 Surface lineup includes the Surface Pro 9, Surface Studio 2 Plus, and Surface Laptop 5.

There were plenty of doubters early on that didn’t think Microsoft would be able to succeed with Surface. Apple CEO Tim Cook famously mocked Microsoft’s Windows 8 efforts, describing the convergence of tablets and laptops as forced. “You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those things are probably not gonna be pleasing to the user,” said Cook.

So what does Panay say to the doubters?

“Thank you for motivating us and thank you for being on this journey now,” says Panay. “Don’t get me wrong… there’s a team here that has a bit of a chip I’m sure, but it gets buried very quickly in what’s next. We always believed, and we still do.”

That belief will surely lead to more Surface hardware we can’t see coming, and Panay is now dropping hints it will involve cameras, types of input, and AI.

“I think we’re kind of at the point where the perfection of every type of input, I call it the five senses: keyboard, mouse, touch, voice, or pen. Those signals and how they’re coming together where you’re uninhibited to do whatever you want in any type of way associated with what we can do with a camera, I think are also important aspects of how we’re going to be creating in the future,” says Panay.

That means the Surface of years from now could look a lot different than the Surface of today.

As for the kickstand? “I think the thing that will be here in 10 years is the need to create,” Panay says. “The kickstand itself, it might be here, but it’s more about how does a product adapt to you.”

Originally appeared on: TheSpuzz