Microsoft’s Panos Panay previews new Surface mode at Pentagon City mall

October 18, 2013

Microsoft executive Panos Panay swung through the D.C. area this week to promote the next generation of the Surface line as the company is gears up for its launch next Tuesday.

Panay, who’s been the public face of the Surface team, spoke at the Microsoft store in Arlington’s Fashion Centre at Pentagon City Thursday evening. Around 150 people — a mix of business types in suits, students, and older consumers looking for a lightweight computing option — came to hear the talk and see the two newest devices.

The Surface line is meant to bridge the gap between PC and post-PC by offering an alternative to both laptops and tablets.

According to Panay, the firm’s corporate vice president of Surface Computing, two things guide the design of the Surfaces: a commitment to productivity and an effort to bring the best of Microsoft’s products together into one package.

The new models for the Surface come about a year after Microsoft first introduced the devices, to some tepid reviews. There were plenty of intriguing features in the Surface’s design, particularly its smart keyboard covers that made the devices able laptop replacements. But Microsoft had some trouble finding the right audience for the Surface — especially for the Surface RT, which ran a tablet version of Windows 8 rather than the full PC version of the system, and couldn’t run all Windows programs.

That caused many analysts and journalists to question where the RT’s key demographic was — confusion that customers seemed to share. Microsoft had to take a $900 million writedown on the Surface RT, leading some company-watchers to wonder whether the firm would stop RT altogether.

In an interview ahead of the event, Panay said that the feedback from the first-generation of the Surface RT was invaluable in building its successor, the Surface 2.

“The original Surface RT design was done in a bit of a vault,” Panay said. “It really was to be a stage for Windows 8.”

But it became clear that customers had trouble distinguishing between the two models — a difference Panay is making much clearer in this round of releases. The Surface’s RT successor, the Surface 2, is the option that he said will fit most people’s needs. It’s lighter, thinner and faster than its predecessor, and runs the Office programs most people want to use, including Word, PowerPoint, Excel. Unless users need the processing power of the Surface Pro 2 for programs like Photoshop or Quicken, Panay said, the Surface 2 is probably the right machine for them.

“Some people have a clear idea; they need the power,” he said.

But most of the time, he said, when he asks people what they do that would require the higher-end model, he finds their needs — surfing the Web, answering e-mail, dipping in and out of producing and consuming content — can really be met by the Surface 2. But, he said, many people that they want the Pro just in case a program they need won’t run on the lighter tablet.

While Microsoft is looking to address many of the perception problems with the first generation of Surface, he said, the engineering team has taken the most common criticisms about the Surface line to heart. Panay said that changes to the devices were born of a mixture of innovations from firm’s engineering team and a wave of customer feedback about the line’s first generation line.

Chief among those points is battery life, which Panay said has improved 75 percent over the previous model. Both Surface models have also been designed to draw no power when it’s in the deepest sleep, meaning that users should be able to leave their devices and not worry that power has drained away while they were gone.

The company also adjusted the Surface’s integrated kickstand to adds a second, lower angle to increase stability — especially while the Surface is on a user’s lap.

Panay, who has been visiting stores and reaching out to Surface users through forums that include an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit, said that he eats up the feedback he hears on the road.

“If you can’t get close to your customer, what are you doing this for?” Panos said. “Let me hear it, because I can get better for that.”

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Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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