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Microsoft’s Panos Panay Isn’t Chasing Change

The company is focused on improvement, not novelty

Lance Ulanoff
Oct 3, 2018 · 7 min read
Head of Microsoft Devices Panos Panay with a Surface Laptop 2. All photos by Lance Ulanoff.

Like me, Microsoft’s new Surface Pro 6 and Surface Laptop 2 arrived early at the Microsoft Store on Fifth Avenue in New York.

I was there for what’s become a yearly tradition, my post-product launch chat with Microsoft Devices head Panos Panay. Just hours after Panay introduced the updated portables on Tuesday — along with the Studio 2 and the surprising — the new Surface products were lined up on mahogany tables (lacking launch dates, the Studio 2 and Surface Headphones were not on display) with blue-shirted Microsoft sales staff and tech advisors clustered around them, perhaps getting some last-minute bits on how to explain these new Windows 10 touch-screen computers to interested customers.

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Panay holds the new Surface Pro 6 (left) and Surface Laptop 2 (right).

For a moment, though, it was just them, the Surface systems, and me, wandering around and killing time. After not long, Panay walked in. I couldn’t tell who he knew personally and which store employees simply recognized him. Panay greeted each one warmly, as if they were all old friends.

Later, in one of the meeting rooms a few floors up from the showroom floor, Panay and I sat catty-corner with a matte black Surface Pro 6, Surface Laptop 2, and the Surface Headphones arrayed in front of us. In front of me was my own Surface Pro, the previous generation that I will now call Surface Pro 5, but more on that later.

Post-Launch Glow

The night before, after Panay prowled the stage and audience while carrying the new Surface products, I spent time in the demo room looking for differences between the Surface Pro that I used and the new Pro 6. Aside from a slightly redesigned Surface Pen — no more pocket clip — and the new matte black finish, there were none.

Panay told me that it’s clear to him and Microsoft that the five-year-old Surface Pro is not only loved but becoming a bit more of a classic design. Sure, Microsoft is “always tuning it” to keep it modern, but the Pro, with its thin tablet chassis, built-in fully adjustable kickstand, excellent type cover keyboard, and bright, crisp pixel display, is becoming a timeless design. Panay sounds almost allergic to redesign for the sake of change.

“Because, if we had to redesign the product every year, then obviously, we haven’t made a great product. What would I be chasing?” he said.

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Panay unveiling the Surface Headphones.

If I weren’t a long-time Surface Pro user who literally takes the laptop everywhere, I might disagree with Panay. But then, who would believe me?

Still, why not at least introduce the rumored USB-C port to the Pro 6 and Surface Laptop 2? The new , which Panay had with him, has it. The Surface Studio 2 and new headphones have it, too. It’s clearly on Microsoft’s radar.

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Panay admitted that it’s more about timing. He’s not interested in adding it to the Surface Pro 6 to check off a feature box. Yes, USB-C will eventually come to other Surface products. But not, at least on the Pro, at the expense of the traditional USB port.

“I’m not taking that away,” said Panay, pointing at the oft-used USB port on my Surface Pro 5.

More Cores

When it comes to change, the focus of Panay’s team was clearly components, performance, and battery life. Panay told me his team recognized the benefits the more powerful Surface Book gained from its quad-core package and, for this new generation of Surface portables, switched out the dual-core Intel CPUs for eighth-gen Intel quad-core processors. Doing so, however, wasn’t easy.

“It’s much harder to get quad-core in these thinner packages, much more challenging,” said Panay. Panay’s team refused to alter the size and shape of either the Surface Laptop or the Surface Pro, and they weren’t going to change out or shrink the battery.

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It’s not easy squeezing quad-core CPUs in these systems.

“We had to optimize thermal solutions to bring to life all the performance people want,” Panay said.

Panay is especially proud that they did all this on the Surface Pro while lowering the price of the tablet by $100. The price is $899 for a Surface Pro 6 with an Intel core i5, 8 GB of RAM, and 128 GB of storage (there’s an Intel Core M3 version with just 4 GB of memory for $749).

These prices still do not include the Surface Type Cover keyboard or Surface Pen. I pressed Panay on why Microsoft still doesn’t offer a bundle discount. He reminded me that the very first Surface product, the Surface RT, shipped with a keyboard. “We learned a lot,” he said. “Customers wanted choice to pick the keyboard they wanted.”

“If we had to redesign the product every year, then obviously, we haven’t made a great product. What would I be chasing?”

As he sees it, and based on customer feedback, Surface users would rather choose a color of keyboard and pen than receive a small discount for buying all three in one package. On the other hand, Microsoft is not anti-bundle. “You can go to Costco right now and get the . So it’s there; it exists,” he said. “But choice is everything on these products.”

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So you see, it was always the “Surface Pro 5,” at least to customers.

Panay also cleared up a lingering question: How did we end up with a Surface Pro 6 when the last model was simply the Surface Pro?

It started, as many things at Microsoft do, with listening to customers.

“Everyone I talked to was calling it ‘Surface Pro 5’… At the end of the day, they wanted to call it ‘Pro 5,’ and guess what? They did. And do you know what we did? We listened. It is Pro 6,” said Panay, laughing because it was, oddly, the first time he’d heard this question.

A Head of Product Steam

We turned our attention to the previous day’s big surprise, the Surface Headphones. Panay is, unsurprisingly, a fan. “I love those. One of my dream products right now,” he said.

I wondered, though, if the introduction of a new product category could be a signal for more of the same. I understand that Microsoft has, on occasion, been burned when it ventured outside its comfort zone (see ), but the execution here is strong. I wanted to know if Microsoft is thinking about taking its Surface brand into other product categories.

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More Surface products to add to the collage?

Without offering any specifics, Panay said deciding what belongs in the Surface family is about coherence: “If it completes the Microsoft experience in some way or if it brings together the Microsoft experience that’s needed and the device can do that, then we have to think not just about the category but what the invention of the category needs to be. And so, that’s how I operate.”

As Microsoft’s head of industrial design Ralf Groene told me the day before, it took three years to develop the headphones.

The focus for Panay’s team was clearly on components, performance, and battery life.

“We didn’t just, six months ago, wake up and say, ‘This is gonna be awesome. Let’s make some headphones,’” said Panay.

Whatever Microsoft does add to the Surface family, Panay wants to be clear: “We’re gonna be methodical, calculated, and take our time, be patient and make sure we’re bringing the right products to market at the right time but also with great quality and innovation.”

As Panay figures out what those next Surface products might be, he offered some insight into how he works with his close partner, Groene.

Panay was explaining how the Surface Pens have not only replaceable tips but special drawing tips with artist-friendly designations like “HB,” “2B,” and “B.” There’s even a special “Ralf tip.” Each one provides a different inking style on Windows 10 Surface PCs. Ralf uses one tip, and Panay uses another.

“When Ralf [Groene] and I work, I’ll be talking, and he’ll be drawing,” he said, “And when he’s talking, I will be writing. This is our creative flow together.”

I can’t wait to see what that flow produces next.

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